NASA head visits Imperial
12 July 2012
On 11 July over 300 schoolchildren got the chance to put their questions to a real-life astronaut as Head of NASA Charles Bolden came to Imperial to encourage schoolchildren from underrepresented groups to follow a career in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM). Reporter’s Emily Ross-Joannou went along to listen to the talks .
As well as Charles Bolden, the event featured talks from alumni Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE and Professor David Southwood, former Head of Department at the Blackett Laboratory at Imperial who went on to be the Director of the European Space Agency. American folk singer Beth Nielson Chapman entertained the schoolchildren in between speakers with space-related songs. The day was organised by the Outreach Office and Senior Teaching Fellow Dr Mark Richards (Physics).
Dr Richards gave the welcome speech, introducing the schoolchildren to Imperial, challenging common perceptions of the stereotypical crazy scientist and emphasising that people from all walks of life come to the College. “If you are able – our doors are firmly open,” he said.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock gave an enthusiastic speech about the power of dreams. She revealed that as a child she had always imagined she would become a space scientist and although she hasn’t made it to space (so far) she describes herself as doing the next best thing – building things which go into space such as satellite parts. She talked to the children about a number of projects she has worked on including the Aeolus satellite, due to be launched in 2013, which will monitor climate change from space.
Throughout her career Maggie has worked for the Ministry of Defence, presented television programmes about space and she now focuses her efforts on inspiring schoolchildren about science and her career – a role which saw her awarded an MBE for Services to Science Education.
Maggie admitted that despite her ambition she struggled with dyslexia at school and still found maths really hard when she arrived to begin her Physics undergraduate degree at Imperial. “Luckily my tutors nursed me through the course. I clearly remember running down the corridor to ask a Nobel Laureate who worked at the College to help me with my maths homework – he was so helpful-in fact I found it an incredibly nurturing environment.”
Encouraging the schoolchildren not to get deterred from their dreams she says: “I think there is a bit of scientist in all of us – it isn’t about being white or being male it is about having the drive, the vision and the curiosity.”
Q and A with Charles Bolden
The event built up to the arrival of Charles Bolden to the stage and he didn’t disappoint- taking multiple questions about his experiences in space. Charles has been to space four times – once on Columbia, twice on Endeavour and the final time on Discovery- with his longest flight lasting just nine days. “My first time in space was awesome, exhilarating and exciting but I was also anxious to do everything right. I wasn’t scared as we had spent a lot of time training and were confident that there was a huge crew on Earth monitoring our every move.”
Charles admitted he never dreamed of going to space and came from a very segregated area of North Carolina in the USA – when he was growing up all the visions of astronauts he saw were of white men. “What pushed me was meeting the late Dr Ron McNair, an African American astronaut. He asked me if I was going to apply for a space programme and I told him I was worried I wouldn’t be chosen but he convinced me to go for it.”
Commenting on the potential of a science degree he said: “If a child takes STEM-related course there is no door that is closed to them. They can do anything they want.” He also encouraged the pupils to “study hard and not to be afraid of failure”. He went on to relate how even he questioned his career path shortly after his first trip to space when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight in 1986 however he said he was determined to stay on the space programme even after being aware of the risks. “I really think it is human destiny to explore,” he explains. Although Charles now has a more administrative role as head of NASA he admitted: “I’d like to go back to space but who knows!”
Charles noted his excitement about NASA’s Mars Space Laboratory (MSL) mission which Imperial’s Professor Sanjeev Gupta (Earth Science and Engineering) is involved in. “I am really looking forward to 5 August when the Mars Rover called Curiosity will land on Mars. Scientists involved in the project across the world will experience seven minutes of terror as that is how long it will take for the radio waves to reach Earth and for us to find out if the project has been successful. Then we can begin to discover what the atmosphere is like and importantly whether we are alone and if there is life out there.”
Charles left to a cacophony of applause and the schoolchildren seemed suitably wowed. “Working at NASA has always been a dream and hearing Charles Bolden speak today was a great experience,” said 16-year- old Charles from City of London Academy in Islington. “I hope to study physics at somewhere like Imperial so it was amazing to get the chance to come here,” he added.
— Emily Ross-Joannou, Communications and Development
Read the full interview with Charles Bolden.