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Veteran astronaut Tom Jones shares his space journey with students in McLean

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From a young boy reading a book about space to having an asteroid named after him, veteran astronaut Tom Jones followed his dream all the way to view our planet from above.

Jones’ grandmother gave him a book, Space Flight: The Coming Exploration of the Universe, when he was 5 years old.

“That book was my ticket to space. When I got the book, there were no photos because nobody had gone there yet. That’s what started me reading,” he told students at St. Luke School in McLean Nov. 15. “It set off a chain of events that she could not have imagined to where I ended up eventually.”

He ended up on four missions to space and a total of 53 days orbiting the planet.

Jones spoke to fifth- through eighth-graders about his journey and faith. He told them about careers in space exploration. Asking their ages, he mused if one of them could possibly visit Mars in 25 years.

The students asked questions, ranging from what food he missed — cheeseburgers — and if there is friction in space — there is. He told the students he orbited Earth 800 times while in space.

His Catholic faith, he said, helped him follow his dream even when it seemed impossible. He was turned down by NASA twice.   

“I didn’t get there until I was about 35, so you had to have faith that it was going to happen someday and even if it didn’t, have faith in the gifts that God gave you,” he said. “You get the most out of those gifts, and ask God for a little help along the way.”

Jones was able to receive Communion in space. “It’s still very emotional for me to talk about how special that was to have God along with us,” he said.

“To have His physical presence in the Blessed Sacrament on the ship was really something amazing.”

Jones said that although he didn’t know the exact path he would take, faith helped him know he wasn’t alone.

Kathy Fragola, whose son, Robert, is a seventh-grader, introduced Jones at the presentation. She had seen Jones at a book signing, found out he spoke at schools and asked Kam Mangis de Mark, the school science teacher, if she would be interested in Jones speaking to the classes.

Mangis de Mark teaches a space unit to sixth-graders and shares articles on developments in space exploration with students.

“I really hope my students come away inspired, even more interested and dedicated to science than they were the day before,” she said. “I hope they come away believing that they can achieve any dream they have, no matter how far-fetched.”

Jones is currently a senior research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensecola, Fla. He earned a bachelor’s of science from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1977 and a doctorate in planetary science from the University of Arizona in 1988. He has received several NASA awards including the Distinguished Service Medal, four Space Flight Medals, the Exceptional Service award, the Outstanding Leadership Medal and the Exceptional Public Service award. He’s also received awards from Phi Beta Kappa, the Air Force Commendation Medal and is an Eagle Scout. The Main Belt asteroid 1082TomJones is named in his honor.

Jones has written four books: Planetology (written with Ellen Stofan), Hell Hawks! The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht (with Robert F. Dorr), Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir and Ask the Astronaut: A Galaxy of Astonishing Answers to Your Questions on Spaceflight. He writes for Air & Space Smithsonian, Aerospace America, Popular Mechanic and American Heritage magazines.

Reflecting on the importance of prayer, he said, “Wherever you go or whenever you’re undergoing a trial, all you have to do is whisper, ‘God be with me’.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016