Aviation and space are part of the lifeblood of the Seattle area, and an event this past Saturday at the Museum of Flight was about changing the image of who can design, fly and manage those enterprises.
A middle-schooler asked astronaut Stephanie Wilson whether she saw Earth differently after being in space, and Wilson said, yes, because from orbit, you see a world without borders, instead of human conflicts.
Their exchange was part of an effort to help more children envision lives without boundaries.
Aviation and space are part of the lifeblood of the Seattle area, and the event this past Saturday at the Museum of Flight was about changing the image of who can design, fly and manage those enterprises. Mentoring is at the center of the work done by volunteers in the Michael P. Anderson Aeronautics Program.
Air Force Lt. Col. Anderson, a Spokane native and University of Washington graduate, was one of seven astronauts who died when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. There’s an elementary school named for him in Spokane, and the city unveiled a large statue of him in 2005. Four years later, a replica was placed outside the Seattle museum.
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Lt. Col. Ronald Limes, who chairs the aeronautics mentoring program, was there for the 2009 dedication ceremony in Seattle. Saturday he told me, “The committee that put that together looked at each other and said, ‘Now what?’ ” Statues don’t change lives, he said, so he and a few others set about creating a living tribute to Anderson.
Anderson was one of only a few black astronauts, and the program founders saw in him a figure of inspiration for children who might otherwise not see themselves in the sciences.
In February 2010, they brought together about 25 children and took them to the Museum of Flight for a couple of educational programs and a speech by former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, president of the museum at the time. Their mission is “to inspire kids to reach and achieve their dreams through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math),” Limes said.
They targeted disadvantaged children of color, but the program is open to children of any background in grades 6-8. More than 60 scholars attended the day of activities Saturday, and they were from a wide range of ethnicities and economic levels.
Limes, who last year replaced Lt. General Harold Mitchell as chair, said it’s good for all of the scholars to see black role models. Mitchell was one, so is Limes, and so are most of the other mentors who work in a range of STEM-related fields, from information technology to engineering. Many are pilots, while some are administrators.
Limes left active duty but serves in the Air Force Reserves as a C-17 instructor pilot and until last month was commander of the 313 Airlift Squadron. He’s also an Alaska Airlines captain who flew 737s. He was inspired to become a pilot by a 6th-grade teacher who loved flying.
The program has grown from one day of events to an educational program that runs from February through July. Scholars have online assignments that they have to complete, and they get several hands-on opportunities each year. Rather than start from scratch, the program partners with several existing aviation-related programs for young people to explore engineering, tour planes and even fly with volunteer pilots. The museum is a key partner.
The program is free, paid for by partners and donations, so that income is not a barrier, and it even pays to bring a busload of scholars from Spokane to events.
The year starts each February with Michael Anderson Day at the museum, and the speaker is always someone chosen for the ability to inspire, like Wilson, who has flown three shuttle missions and is the second African-American woman in space. Six black astronauts have spoken, including Charles Bolden, the current head of NASA and the only black person to hold that position.
Who would have imagined a black person holding that position when astronauts were all white and male? We’ve grown since then and we can keep growing by removing more barriers and seeding new talent. It’s good to see adults helping a rainbow of children reach for the stars.