On Tuesday, May 2nd, former NASA astronaut Dr. Donald Thomas spoke to grades 5-8 about “Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve your Dream in Life.” The first NASA astronaut to ever visit Lebanon, Dr. Thomas was invited by the Young Leaders Development Program - Lebanon to speak to a number of students in schools across the country.
A moving and inspirational speaker with an extraordinary life story, Dr. Thomas described the determination he employed to achieve his dream of one day becoming an astronaut — a profession that has a fiercely competitive selection process with only a 0.6% acceptance rate. “I was not one of those students who naturally did well in school,” said Dr. Thomas. “I was the type that had to read that chapter, read it again, talk to my teachers and ask questions,” he said. “But in the end, I got everything that I needed to learn and I taught myself to work hard along the way, which is a great skill I used later on.”
His life trajectory can be described as a deliberate set of choices he made in pursuit of a dream he has had since he was six years old. He finished high school at the top of his class, went on to major in physics in college, and completed a master’s and doctorate in engineering. Upon graduation, he started working as an engineer for AT&T in Princeton, New Jersey and waited until an astronaut recruitment round opened to apply. “NASA announced they were looking for new astronauts. I applied and guess what — they rejected me. Two more years later I applied another time, and guess what happened? They said ‘no thank you’ once again.”
This compelled Dr. Thomas to do some research. “I wasn’t even close in the completion, so I looked into the backgrounds of the people they were selecting. What did they have that I didn’t?” He noticed that most people had some flying experience. While it was not a requirement for the job, it appeared to help their chances. So, he got his pilot license. He also saw that quite a few had their parachute license. Again, not a requirement but it helped. So he did that too. He learned to scuba dive.
Three years later he applied a third time, and finally got a call back from NASA. He flew to Houston, Texas for a lengthy interview and felt great about his chances. He thought he would finally make it. But he was wrong. NASA turned him down a third time. “At this point, I thought I needed to give up on this silly dream of mine. So I decided I would go to bed, and in the morning I’d put together a new plan on what to do that didn’t involve being an astronaut,” he said. “ The next morning I woke up, and the first thought that popped into my mind was, ‘I still really want to be an astronaut.’ ”
Dr. Thomas went back and studied the information he had collected on the selected candidates and learned that most had already been working for NASA. This motivated him to drive across the country and take a job as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The next time the astronaut recruitment round opened, he applied, and, at last was accepted. He was 35 years old.
Dr. Thomas spent a total of 44 days in space and orbited the earth 692 times during the span of his career. A fun fact about space travel? “It only takes 8 ½ minutes to get to space,” relayed Dr. Thomas. “I bet it takes you more than 8 ½ minutes to get to school everyday, right?” he said with a laugh. Once a spaceship is launched, it travels at a speed of 27,000 kilometers per hour and takes a mere 1 ½ hours to fully orbit the earth.
Dr. Thomas concluded his presentation with words of wisdom for the students. “There are a couple of things I want to pass on to you today,” he said. “Always work hard, every day, and don’t be afraid of your dreams. Had I given up on my dream, I would not be here with you today.”