Florida Today: Aldrin, Takei Inspire Astronauts of Tomorrow at KSC

Aldrin, Takei inspire astronauts of tomorrow at KSC

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — Neil Karl John Robert Eugene Wellmann is going to grow up to be a heck of an astronaut, if his father has anything to say about it.

Born on April 12, 2016 — the International Day of Human Space Flight, if you can believe it — and named for five former astronauts, Neil slept soundly through the Apollo 11 Anniversary Gala on Saturday night. But of the 250 guests who came out to Kennedy Space Center, he was the only one.

Inspiring kids, like Neil, to imagine the unimaginable and reach for the unreachable is the mission of Buzz Aldrin’s ShareSpace Foundation, which hosted the evening.

“The future has a great possibility of being great, but it’s up to us,” said Aldrin.

Live long, prosper and go to Mars. That was the message Saturday night at the Apollo 11 anniversary gala hosted by iconic “Star Trek” actor George Takei and legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Held underneath the rocket at the Apollo/Saturn V center, some of the biggest names in space and space culture challenged a crowd of about 250 people to “boldly go where no one’s gone.”

Placing an emphasis on STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math — the ShareSpace Foundation aims to get kids hands-on experience in the classroom. Although the foundation has reached more than 50,000 students in two years, Aldrin says the education system has a long way to go.

Just last week, ShareSpace introduced its newest idea to get kids excited about space travel — a giant map of the surface of Mars. Already, 200 teachers have requested a map for their classroom.

Alicia Lenderman, who teaches at Ralph M. Williams Jr. Elementary School, says her kids are enamored with space but they need more than the Internet to reach it. A Mars map would be a step in the right direction. “We have Google access to everything,” she said. “But you don’t have Google access to the moon. You don’t have Google access to the stars.”

Above all, the schools need to make it fun, said Donnetta Hrkach, who teaches computer applications at Central Middle School. Taking education beyond pop quizzes and homework assignments gives a purpose to learning, she added.

Even at McNair Magnet School, which specializes in STEAM, Megan Cooper would like to see more outreach from space programs.

Even so, Aldrin continues to inspire children of all ages, including Back, 11, and Kaden Carlson, 14, who traveled from Los Angeles with their parents to hear Aldrin speak. Taking advantage of library time to read about the planets, they’re excited to see humans land on Mars in their lifetime. You can hardly get the question out before they blurt out a definite “yes.” Their parents, Daria and Layth, who serves on the board of the ShareSpace Foundation, says the opportunity for his kids to know Aldrin is incredible. “When they go back to school, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I know him!’ said Layth, secretary treasurer for the foundation.

If given the chance, Jesse Neaville, 17, who came from Seattle with his mom, would snatch up a one-way ticket to Mars. In the meantime, he plans to become a commercial pilot and possibly study at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “I think other people look at it and they don’t see a clear path,” said Neaville, a cadet second lieutenant with the Civil Air Patrol. “I would be wrong to say I wasn’t scared.”

Hosting the event, original “Star Trek” TV series actor George Takei emphasized the importance to include the artists, not just the mathematicians and scientists. “Because they’re the imagineers,” said Takei.

Donning a tuxedo onesie for the black-tie affair, baby Neil attracted plenty of attention. Passers-by would ask, “Is he a future astronaut?” His father, Jens Wellmann, replied, “I hope so.”

Contact Glenn at caglenn@floridatoday.com or 321-576-5933, or follow her on Twitter @bycarolineglenn.

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