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Commerce In Space Is The Final Frontier, Say NASA Scientists, Former Astronaut

Former shuttle astronaut Don Thomas poses with students from Stewart Middle School's space magnet program. All are dressed in blue astronaut uniforms.
Former space shuttle astronaut Don Thomas described his first flight into space in detail. He later posed with students from the space magnet program at Stewart Middle School in Tampa. Credit: Wayne Garcia/WUSF Public Media

NASA scientists and a former astronaut on Tuesday told a group of local students and future entrepreneurs that doing business in space can be on everyone's agenda.

They'll speak with members of the public on Wednesday as well.

Nearly 200 people – including a group from the John Glenn Top Gun Academy at Stewart Middle Magnet School in Tampa -- came to Destination Station, a NASA traveling exhibit that landed at the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida.

Jobs and creativity in space were at the center of the message. But the star in the room was Don Thomas, a former NASA astronaut who flew on four space shuttle missions in the 1990s. He said fascination with space is being renewed.

“You know, that interest is booming right now, especially with our commercial partners,” Thomas said. “Elon Musk is a rock star for the young generation and they love what he's doing. You know, he's got that entrepreneur spirit. That whole generation is into that.”

Thomas called the middle schoolers and university students at the event "the Mars generation" -- that they will be the ones to stand on the red planet.

And he drew laughs from the campus audience when he brought home just how close space is.

“It takes only 8 1/2 minutes to get into space,” Thomas said. “I bet it took you more than 8 1/2 minutes to find a parking space today.”

NASA officials discussed the many types of commercial research and manufacturing going on aboard the International Space Station.

“It's almost like a limitless frontier because when we go out in the cosmos, there's always a new challenge,” said David Brady, an associate program scientist for the space station program. “Low-earth orbit had been a big challenge for the last 50 or 60 years. But now you see commercial companies flying there with their own vehicles on a regular basis. So there's multiple paths now. When I was a kid, the only one path was to become a NASA astronaut.”

NASA's Destination Station exhibit features a moon rock, videos and a spacesuit for selfies.
NASA's Destination Station exhibit features a moon rock. It will be on the USF campus again Wednesday, open to the public. Credit: Wayne Garcia/WUSF Public Media

The public event Wednesday is free, and registration for it is online. The "Learn the Business of Space" program is being held in the BSN Atrium in the USF Muma College of Business, 12212 USF Genshaft Dr. in Tampa.

It features talks by NASA scientists and business officials, as well as another keynote address from Thomas. The afternoon will have three breakout sessions for the public, on the Big Business of Space, Life Sciences and Advanced Materials.

Thomas said he is excited about the opportunities for the students he spoke with to travel and do business in outer space. He said space flight changes a person.

“I think I can speak for most of the 600 astronauts that have flown in space, if you ask any of those 600 ‘How did it change you?’ you're going to hear these two things,” he said. “The first is it changes your perspective of the planet and how fragile our planet is. You see, our atmosphere is a paper-thin layer. And every astronaut comes back from their mission with a keen appreciation for how fragile Earth is and how we have to take better care of this place.

“The second way, it changes your view of your place on the planet,” he continued. “I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and I used to tell people, I'm from Cleveland. That's how I identified myself. Today, if you ask me, 'Hey, Don, where are you from?' I'm going to tell you I’m from Earth. And for me, it doesn't matter what city, state, country, continent, language, religion, none of that stuff matters at all. We're all Earthlings here.”

Wayne Garcia is working with the WUSF newsroom and its digital media interns for the fall 2019 semester.
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