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Saturday, July 20, 2024


Nov. 18, 2002 — The National Aeronautics and Space Administration keeps its sights firmly on outer space. But this week, a number of NASA staff members have the Virgin Islands in their sights.
NASA Awareness Days — a celebration and presentation of all the areas that group of scientists and administrators pay attention to — is taking place on the University of the Virgin Islands campuses this week.
More than a thousand schoolchildren and adults crowded into the Sports and Fitness Center Monday morning for the opening session of the Awareness Days, and you can be sure nobody fell asleep. They heard UVI officials express gratitude for this collaboration between NASA, UVI and the United Negro College Fund Special Programs (UNCFSP). They heard Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen explain how the serendipity of a conversation at a banquet she unexpectedly attended started the wheels turning which ended in Awareness Days coming to the Virgin Islands.
UVI President LaVerne Ragster expressed the university's gratitude for this partnering, and then addressed the students: "If you're happy to be here, stamp your feet twice." Well, Dr. Ragster has been there often enough to know that great sound of some two thousand feet on the center's seating would sound so good it wouldn't stop at "twice." But the crowd quieted soon enough, as a slim young lady in a blue jumpsuit walked to the podium and began to talk
Graduating in the NASA class of '96, astronaut Stephanie Wilson is one of seven class members still with NASA. She's a "mission specialist" at the Johnson Space Center and she showed slides to explain what a mission specialist does, and what she went through to reach that point. Wilson knew from the time she was 13 years old that she wanted to be an astronaut; she used to look at the stars and think, "How could I get there?"
She's on her way to the stars in space: she likely will get a space assignment with the next two years. Meantime, she trains and retrains, she flies T-37 two-person planes weekly to "keep her hand in," and KC-135 simulator aircraft. She attends classes and studies textbooks; she goes overseas to train with Russian and European astronauts.
After Wilson talked about a half hour, she stopped for questions, and the students were ready. Eventually UVI St. Thomas Chancellor John Leipzig got the questioners to come to the front and line up, and at one point there were about 30 of them waiting their turn.
"How fast do you travel in space?" "How much does your job pay?" "Do any Astronauts have claustrophobia [after looking at the equipment crowded into a simulator]?" "How many people can there be at the station, and how many can go up on the shuttle?" "Do you believe there's life out there?"
Wilson had the answers, and throughout the rest of the day she and other NASA staffers worked with students, presented posters and equipment demonstrations, and answered questions, as the large group broke up by grades into workshop groups.
Over two days, four workshop sessions are set, with six workshops within each session – a total of 24 – on St. Thomas. Groups are broken down by: Grades 4-8, Grades 9-12, UVI undergraduate students, UVI faculty and staff, preservice teachers who will be trained for new Grades K-12 NASA initiatives in the Education Department.
Tuesday morning's "presentations session" will feature awards to V.I. science fair winners, recognition of UVI science and mathematics students, and a career panel discussion. Dr. Carl Person of NASA's minority research and educational programs and Carolyn Knowles of the UNCFSP will introduce several new and expanding initiatives and grants that will become available to the Virgin Islands and will present awards as well. One of these programs outlined by Knowles, will put teachers into space and provide scholarships in exchange for a year's service at NASA after graduation. All NASA educational grants, said Person, require that a receiving institute make a one-quarter match directly to student programs.
The Wednesday session on St. Croix will provide information in a different format, with an opening session featuring astronomer Dr. Beth Brown of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and an afternoon of "NASA Highlights."
Brown also thought early in her life that she wanted to be an astronaut, and she believed the study of astronomy was necessary to achieve that goal. So she embarked on undergraduate science studies. She became totally engrossed in her astronomy studies and became interested in all the research possibilities. Assigned by a professor to write a paper on requirements for becoming an astronaut, she researched the topic and decided, "Hmmm, maybe I don't want to be an astronaut after all." So she continued her studies into the area of research in astronomy, and finds her chosen career very satisfying.
Brown will also deliver the keynote address Tuesday evening at the grand opening of the NASA Saturday Academy Laboratory and NASA Educator Resource Center, which is housed at UVI's Etelman House Observatory.
Among the Monday morning's platform guests was Education Commissioner Noreen Michael, who is to be commended for seeing to it that so many Virgin Islands students were able to be present to take advantage of this special opportunity.
"I'm sure," said Dr. Ragster in her remarks, "that there are a number of future astronauts in this audience today." NASA's stated mission is, in part: "To inspire the next generation of explorers." And the sparks of knowledge and encouragement and showing the pathways to do it may well have been ignited among the lively youngsters who are attending this event.
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