UMZAMOWETHU, OYSTER BAY – ABOUT 1,000 pupils, their parents and teachers flocked to the Umzamowethu Community Hall on Heritage Day to meet US astronaut Dr Donald Thomas and listen to him speak of how – despite his humble beginnings – he became an intrepid space traveller.
Thomas was visiting the community on invitation of the Kouga Wind Farm, as part of the Eastern Cape leg of his tour which started in Cape Town earlier this month (September 16). After visiting pupils in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday, he wrapped his tour on Wednesday (September 26) in Grahamstown.
The talk formed part of Kouga Wind Farm’s sustainable development drive in the communities within its geographic footprint, with education being a key area of investment. Among the wind farm’s many other community upliftment programmes is a R4-million custom-built library and IT centre launching later this year.
Addressing the pupils, Thomas detailed the many obstacles he overcame, including growing up in an impoverished home without a dad and, on many occasions, even without food on the table. He had to work hard to earn scholarships for university in order to land the education he needed to become an astronaut, he told pupils.
“Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something,” he told the star-struck youngsters, stressing the importance of never giving up on one’s dreams and that hard work really does pay off in the end.
“You should be willing to work hard towards your dreams and not be deterred by those that tell you it can’t be done,” he said.
Thomas also described what it was like to fly in a space shuttle and answered questions from pupils which included how he managed to eat, sleep and even use the toilet in outer space.
During his 20-year tenure with NASA, which included four historic shuttle missions, Thomas logged over 1,000 hours of adventure in space and completed 692 orbits of the earth. His inaugural mission aboard the STS-65 Columbia in July 1994 set a new flight duration record for the US space shuttle programme, with 236 orbits of the earth and 6.1-million miles travelled.
“Everyone was silent throughout the whole presentation and asked excellent questions,” said Steve Sherman, head of non-profit organisation Living Maths which organises talks aimed at exciting youngsters about maths and science.
Thomas was overwhelmed by the reception he received by the Kouga community, said Sherman.
“The pupils sang some songs for [Thomas] and were respectful and warm. These talks give disadvantaged youngsters an opportunity to get up close and personal with a real scientist, without having to travel to a big city,” he said.
Other questions posed to Thomas included: Is there life out there? Have astronauts died on missions? What do you eat and drink in space? What qualifications are needed to be an astronaut? How many satellites are in the atmosphere? What speed do you travel at in space?
“We wanted to show the community that gems can come from unexpected areas like Oyster Bay,” said Kouga Wind Farm’s community liaison officer, Trevor Arosi. “Kouga Wind Farm funded this talk to bring testimonies and motivation to children in our community and to impress on them the need to take their studies seriously.”
According to Arosi, the event attracted over 800 pupils from nine in schools in the Kouga area. Also in attendance were teachers, departmental officials, parents and the general public.