Retired Nasa astronaut Nicole Stott visited South Africa for the first time last week, as part of the Living Maths Space Week Tour.
On Wednesday May 17, she visited Parklands College Prep School in Parklands, Table View, where she spoke to the pupils, several dressed up as astronauts, about her 28-year career at Nasa and her life as an astronaut.
Ms Stott, who has written a book, Back to Earth, is also an aquanaut, an artist and a mother.
She was part of two space-shuttle missions, the first in 2009, for three months, when her son was 7, and the second, in 2011, for two weeks.
Ms Stott said she had always admired South Africa from thousands of miles away and she was happy to be visiting the country.
She had been about 6 years old – about the same age as many of the children she was speaking to – when she had first dreamed of being an astronaut, she said.
Her mother loved art and her father built and flew mini-aeroplanes, which had left her quite undecided about what she had wanted to do.
“I decided to study aeronautical engineering, where I learned to fly aeroplanes. This sparked my interest of how rocket ships take off and go all the way into space,” she told the pupils.
In 1988, she joined Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. She continued studying and, in 1992, she obtained a Master’s degree in science in engineering management.
She was interviewed to be an astronaut, but was not selected until 2000 when she became a mission specialist.
Her first trip into space had been “amazing”, she said, adding, “You’re shaking like jello, and travelling super fast, hoping to go in the right direction.
“It’s so cool, from being peaceful and quiet on the launch pad to those entrance lighting and in about eight and a half minutes, you are orbiting the planet and travelling 28 000km per hour.”
Her time in space, she said, included floating to her computer, checking the carbon dioxide levels in her atmosphere, and checking on the health and wellbeing of the crew.
During free time, the astronauts were allowed to take pictures and soak up the “indescribable view”. She joked that women never have a “good hair day” in space.
You have to go through various levels of training before becoming an astronaut, including exercising for two hours a day, she said.
She encouraged the pupils by saying: “We are all earthlings. The only border there is, is that thin blue line of atmosphere that blankets and protects us all. I believe that if we decide to accept our roles as crew mates and not passengers here on Earth, we will have the power to create a future for all life on Earth.”
Steve Sherman, chief imagination officer at Living Maths, accompanied Ms Stott on her Space Tour, which ended on Thursday, May 18, and he was the main organiser of her public talks at schools across the city.
Living Maths is an organisation that runs maths classes at 30 schools in Cape Town by making the subject fun.