April 18, 2016

Astronaut Touches Down at Merchants’ Academy

Mike Foale, the first Briton to walk in space, held students spellbound when he visited Merchants’ Academy Bristol to talk about his career. He told the audience of Year 7 and 8 students how he wanted to be an astronaut from the age of six and pursued his ambition with determination. He was finally selected by NASA at the age of 30 and went on to take part in six Space Shuttle missions, including extended missions to Mir and the International Space Station.

Highlights included repairing the Bristol-built Hubble space telescope and helping to rescue the Russian space station. He was the first British-born astronaut to spend time on the International Space Station, on which Briton Tim Peake is currently coming to the end of a six-month mission.

Mike explained that at the time he was aspiring to become an astronaut, the UK was not putting money into space exploration. However, he was able to apply to NASA because his mother was American, and was accepted at his third attempt.

Wearing a blue flight jacket, Mike told the students how he had been inspired by his RAF pilot father, by watching films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and by reading science fiction. As a child, he visited the US space centre. He watched the historic 1969 moon landings on television and dreamed of following in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

“My parents didn’t really think I could ever become an astronaut,” he said. But once his other ambition of becoming a jet pilot like his dad was ruled out when he failed the eyesight test, Mike began aiming for Houston. While studying for a physics degree and an astrophysics doctorate at Cambridge, he also took part in activities including gliding, using a radio telescope and scuba diving, which he recognised could all help him get on in his career.

Mike secured a job working in aerospace in the US and was finally selected by NASA a year or so after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, in which seven crew members died. He has spent more than a year in space during his missions.

His talk was accompanied by inspiring photos and videos. Students were particularly entertained by pictures of Mike drinking water and eating M&Ms in the zero gravity environment.

Merchants’ Academy was one of only eight schools in the UK to have a visit from Mike, who lives in America with his family and devotes some of his time to the International Space Station Education Trust.

He presented Principal Nick Short with a poster on which he had written: “To Merchants’ Academy: Study hard at school and you will achieve your dreams.”

Mr Short said that Mike Foale was a shining example of someone who had achieved more than they ever thought possible, which is the vision for everyone at Merchants’ Academy.

Science teacher Kevin Timothy said: “Mike’s visit has really enthused and motivated the students. It is so inspiring for them to have the opportunity to meet someone who has achieved so much in an amazing career.”

Dr Hilary Macaulay, Executive Principal of Merchants’ Academy Trust, said that – thanks to its sponsors, the Society of Merchant Venturers and the University of Bristol –  the academy was renowned for enabling young people to hear from high-profile local and national visitors.

“This was an opportunity for an international dimension. Mike’s talk, photos and video were phenomenal and both students and staff were awestruck,” she said. “It is a crucial time for the next generation to learn about the UK’s impact on space travel. We need to develop first class scientists and help young people realise the opportunities science education can open up for them.”