Inspiration from Women Paving the Way to Mars

Posted on Tue, April 11, 2017

Before coming to work at the National Air and Space Museum, I taught for 15 years at Liberty Public Schools near Kansas City, Missouri. When I was teaching, I would write to anyone I thought I could get a response from, including celebrities, asking them for advice for students. Over the years, I got some amazing responses, including one from the actor who played Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. The horror villain’s advice: “Read or Die!” Peanuts animator Bill Melendez also encouraged reading in a letter that appeared to be on paper ripped straight from his sketchbook and was accompanied by a sketch of Snoopy.

A framed letter with a drawing of Snoopy.

A letter from Peanuts animator Bill Melendez encouraging my students to read.

But my favorite responses were always from astronauts.  

A couple really stand out. I received one from Peggy Whitson, who recently set the record for female spacewalks. Her note said, “For Mr. Kelsey’s Class - Dream big - you never know how far you might go.”  These are simple words, but the power behind them is always inspiring.  

An image of the ISS with a note scrawled on top.

A note from Astronaut Peggy Whitson.

I received a handwritten letter from astronaut Wendy Lawrence, who flew into space four times. In it she said, “Often I have the opportunity to speak to grade school students. I always tell them to stay in school and get the best education possible because a good education will open doors for them. Also I tell them to take care of their minds and bodies and to do so by not abusing alcohol or by taking drugs.”  

I also received a great response from Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space. She sent a letter that said, in part, “One thing I would like to take the opportunity to say is that we need more outstanding, young people today to set examples for their peers. I would encourage them to build on their successes as they go through life.”

Each time I would bring a new letter into my class to share with my students, their eyes would light up. Knowing that someone important or famous had taken the time to write to them was inspiring.  

Tomorrow, I will host a show about women who are paving the way to Mars. The show is a part of STEM in 30, a series of interactive classroom programs consisting of 30-minute live webcasts. Our guest is an equally inspiring person. Abigail Harrison is a 20-year-old college student who has set her sights on becoming an astronaut and the first person to step on the planet Mars. She’s also the founder of the Mars Generation, a nonprofit dedicated to exciting young people about STEM education and space. To help prepare for the show, I asked her what advice she would give to students. Her response:

The best advice I can give students is the same advice I received from my mentor Astronaut Luca Parmitano:

Follow your passions and pursue what is truly exciting to you in your studies. Don't try to study what you think NASA wants you to study to become an astronaut. If you follow your passions wherever you land it will be an adventure, and you will end up doing something you love. 

You can hear more from Harrison and about the other women who have helped pave the way toward our future on Mars during tomorrow’s STEM in 30 at 11:00 am and 1:00 pm (EST). 

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