From an early age, astronaut Anne McClain was reaching for the skies.
On Wednesday afternoon, she urged an audience of local middle-school students to do the same, even as they feel more restrained than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I challenge everyone to do something that’s not in your comfort zone,” the Spokane native said during a Zoom meeting with students from Selkirk and Greenacres middle schools in the Central Valley School District.
“But if you aim for nowhere, you’ll get there,” McClain said.
That the virtual meeting happened at all was a credit to the boldness of Selkirk science teacher Rachael Kettner.
As her students were engaged in a project focused on how humans can safely explore Mars, it occurred to Kettner that she needed some expert advice.
“I needed an astronaut,” said Kettner, who dared to go where teachers seldom go: Twitter.
“I just put it out there, and said ‘Twitter, do your thing,’” Kettner said.
That was a month ago. Not long afterward, someone had tagged McClain, who was eager to help.
The result was a Zoom encounter that transcended science, a booster rocket of inspiration for kids whose dreams have stagnated during enforced time at home.
McClain met the students where they live – at home. Reminding them of an earlier pandemic – the flu of 1918 – she reassured them that this would end one day and that “you’re going to miss playing with your siblings.”
“I challenge you to find some of the things you’re going to miss when this is over,” McClain said.
McClain also captured their imaginations with stories from her childhood, of deciding at age 3 that she wanted to go to space.
Told later by someone she trusted that those dreams were unrealistic – “that you can’t do this” – McClain recalled feeling “really devastated.”
She sought advice from her mother, who responded with a rhetorical question: “Well, does that person work for NASA?”
However, McClain’s head didn’t live in the clouds; she also buried herself in books. It didn’t hurt that she loved math and science, but it mattered more that she applied herself.
After graduating from Gonzaga Prep, she also found time to play softball at Spokane Community College as she waited on appointment to West Point.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, she was commissioned an Army officer in 2002, then earned master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and international relations.
In June 2013, the same month as her graduation as a test pilot, McClain was selected by NASA as part of Astronaut Group, becoming the youngest astronaut on the NASA roster.
McClain flew to the International Space Station in December 2018 and returned to Earth six months later.
Wednesday’s presentation included breathtaking images of Earth from space, as well as life aboard the space station.
Then she took her audience back to Earth, literally and figuratively.
“No one starts up there,” McClain said. “What your job now is to build blocks. If you do that, you’re going to get places, and you can end up where I did.”
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