With plans for humans going to Mars by 2040, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told a panel on Friday that it was in human DNA to explore.
“This exploration goes far beyond the old phrase ‘the sky is the limit,'” Nelson said. “It’s the heavens are the limit.”
Nelson, a former U.S. senator and former NASA astronaut, spoke to Plaza Live to a crowd of students from schools in central Florida. Normally, the Nelson Initiatives on Ethics and Leadership forum is held at the University of Florida.
To accommodate the largest panel of speakers this year, the forum was held in Orlando with the help of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and guest students from UCF, UF, University of South Florida, Bethune-Cookman University, and Orange County Public Schools.
The panel was made up of former NASA astronauts, including Robert “Hoot” Gibson, Charles Bolden, George “Pinky” Nelson, Steven Hawley, Brewster Shaw, Jim Wetherbee, Robert Cenker and surgeon Dr. Rhea Seddon.
“Where will it be in the future, let your imagination run wild,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he referred to the new era of astronauts as the “Artemis generation” after NASA’s current Artemis plan to return to the moon. In June, the first flight in the Artemis series is scheduled to launch as a test flight and will not be crewed.
In 2025, a crew will go into lunar orbit, transfer to a lander and land on the Moon. This will have the first woman to walk on the moon.
“To travel such a distance, to be able to survive, to learn to adapt and to be able to come back safely is quite an achievement,” Nelson said. “We’ll try to do that.”
For the next generation of astronauts, George Nelson said the best thing students can do is become the best enthusiasts. He said they need to be good team members, understand their technical skills and have confidence in themselves.
Many speakers said they never thought they would become astronauts.
Seddon said she first became interested in space when she saw Sputnik, Earth’s first man-made satellite, fly past her home. Her father told her that she was entering a new era with spaceflight. Without knowing the long road it would take for women to be astronauts, she said she wondered if she had a future in this field.
“I asked her, you know I’m a little girl, ‘do you think people will go to space one day,'” Seddon said. “He said ‘probably’ and I said ‘dad, do you think I could go to space?'”
Seddon and Gibson were both part of the first space shuttle class of 1978, which Bill Nelson called a feat due to initial NASA diversity issues.
Prior to this class, all astronauts were white males, but as the spacecraft carried more people, Nelson said NASA realized it needed an astronaut core that looked more like America. The class of 1978 included women, including Seddon, as well as minorities.
Bolden said that growing up in segregated Columbia, South Carolina, he was blessed to be raised by two teachers who encouraged him in everything. Bolden, who is black, never thought of being an astronaut because there were no African Americans or other minority astronauts at the time.
Bolden said there were two things he wouldn’t do: be a Marine and fly a plane, which he ended up doing. Likewise, saying he would never apply to NASA, he applied to test pilot school, where he met Ronald McNair, an astronaut lost in the Challenger explosion who encouraged Bolden to apply for the Nasa.
“I had forgotten what my mom and dad and my teachers told me,” said Bolden, who spent 14 years at NASA. “That I could do whatever I wanted.”
The students were divided into seven groups, each with an astronaut with whom they could have a more intimate conversation.
Wetherbee spoke with his board about the life lessons he learned from his time at NASA, his book, and his life beyond being an astronaut. He said students should focus on building confidence in their knowledge while maintaining humility and checking everything.
“You can get ‘A’s in college if you have the right theory,” Wetherbee said. “But when you go into the real world, if you don’t have the right minus signs and the right plus signs, people die.”
Bill Nelson said part of being a leader is recognizing and correcting mistakes, some of which can be fatal. Each of the speakers was alive for the tragedies of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia.
Shaw was the first on the panel to reflect on the impact of these events on their lives. He said more than a hardware performance issue, the Challenger and Columbia disasters were failures of human judgment, decision-making and leadership.
“They were our friends, our countrymen, our teammates and they were a great loss to the world,” Shaw said.
Gibson said NASA was looking forward to eight or nine launches in 1986 before Challenger. He said the crash not only took seven of their friends, but shattered their dreams and left them wondering if the space shuttle program would survive.
“We were on top of the world,” Gibson said. “All of a sudden we descended into the darkest, deepest hole I’ve ever been in.”
Gibson said NASA engineers were turned down by management because delaying the launch would look bad. He said it was a lesson in ethics, urging the public to listen to all input into decisions. Bolden said that now any launch or process can be stopped if someone says no.
In efforts to pull the team out of the black hole, Hawley said they threw a party, where the band Max Q was born out of Hawley, Gibson, George Nelson and Shaw. The band is named after the technical term “max q” for the maximum dynamic pressure of the atmosphere experienced by an ascending aircraft.
“About forty-five seconds after launch, there is a lot of noise, a lot of shaking, a lot of vibration. There’s no music,” Gibson said. “And we said ‘hey, that’s us.’
The band performed alongside the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert Saturday at Plaza Live. Dr. Mary Palmer, former president of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, said this event has been going on for three years now.
“It provides insights that people may not have thought about in terms of career paths or what opportunities might be for them,” Palmer said.
Having seen it himself, Shaw said the appearance of Earth from orbit is something every living human should see.
Shaw said you can see the difference between Mother Nature and human beings from up there, the difference being that Mother Nature doesn’t “make straight lines.” With the naked eye, you can see the pyramids, the Great Wall of China and all the “straight lines” that human beings have created.
“Seeing your planet, your home, the only home we’ll probably ever have, from that perspective and seeing what we do with it,” Shaw said. “It makes you feel like we need to do a better job of taking care of it.”