Don Thomas has never climbed the Himalayas, but he has seen the top of Mount Everest 25 times.
Thomas also has looked into the crater of an erupting volcano and has lived to talk about the time he looked through the eye of a hurricane over the Pacific Ocean.
Thomas saw all these and more during the 44 days he spent in space as a NASA mission specialist.
He shared some of his experiences Monday with Frederick County students and parents, who came to Lincoln Elementary to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Frederick County Public Schools’ Earth Space and Science Laboratory in Frederick.
Thomas, who made his last space flight in 1997 and is now director of Towson University’s Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science, talked about his life in zero-gravity and showed his audience how astronauts do experiments in space, eat dehydrated food from pouches and sleep strapped to the walls of the space shuttle.
He also talked about the moment of takeoff — the most dangerous and most exciting time in a space mission.
“Liftoff feels like somebody has their hand on your back pushing you up,” he said. “I was a little bit scared, a little bit nervous but really excited.”
Thomas, who was a kindergartener when the first American astronaut went into space, grew up knowing that he wanted to become an astronaut. He spent nine years in college, earned a doctorate and applied four times for the NASA space program before he achieved his dream. He encouraged students and parents to cultivate a love of science and exploration.
Thomas’ talk on Monday was the highlight of the anniversary celebration for the recently renovated Earth and Space Science Laboratory — a hands-on learning lab that has served generations of Frederick County students.
In celebration of the lab’s rich history, the staff organized an open house Monday, inviting the community to explore the facility. As part of the event, visitors could tour the laboratory, do a scavenger hunt through the laboratory’s arboretum, watch a planetarium show or try out the new observatory.
The event, which lasted throughout the day, attracted more than 1,000 people, said a pleased Jeff Grills, one of the co-directors of the laboratory.
“A lot of people still have not been here after the renovation,” he said. “For them, it is still new.”
Lisa Deener of Middletown brought her two children, Michael, 7, and Amanda, 10, to hear Thomas’ presentation and watch a planetarium show at the lab, as part of their lessons on space. Deener homeschools her children.
“It was fascinating,” Deener said. “This fits right in what we are studying.”
Deener, who graduated from Brunswick High School, said she used the old Earth and Space Science Laboratory as a student and praised the new facility as a place where students can develop a true passion for science and learning.
Sonya Goldstein of Frederick, who came to the open house with her husband and son, said she agreed about the benefits of the lab.
An avid space and flight enthusiast, Goldstein’s son, a kindergartener at Parkway Elementary, wanted to hear Thomas’ presentation. Dressed in an astronaut’s costume and adorned with pins that he received when he met other astronauts and mission commanders, Drew checked out the live animals in the lab while he waited to see a planetarium show and hear Thomas’ presentation.
“This is an amazing resource,” Goldstein said of the laboratory.
Featuring its own planetarium, two science classrooms, an oceanography lab, a geology lab and 22 aquariums, the laboratory today is a state-of the art facility, which offers an opportunity for hands-on learning to all elementary students in Frederick County. In Maryland, the laboratory is rivaled only by one similar facility in Prince George’s County.
The site was established in December 1962, in a portion of what was then South Frederick Elementary School and later became Lincoln Elementary. Today it is based in its own building on the school’s campus in Frederick.
When the aging 3,300-square-foot space became too small for students, county officials started planning the laboratory’s current $5-million facility, which was Frederick County Public Schools’ first “green building.”
Equipped with a geothermal heating system, 75 solar panels, waterless urinals and a state-of the-art planetarium machine, the lab’s current building opened for students in 2009.
Through a donation from the Natelli Communities — a development company based in Gaithersburg — the lab this year also received a new $150,000 observatory, featuring a 15-foot rotating fiberglass dome.