To infinity and beyond
Former NASA astronaut, graphic novel artist share stories to inspire
Looking to reinvigorate the interest of young people in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics by using science fiction as a primary engine, the Museum of Science Fiction hosted its first ever micro-futuristic world fair, Escape Velocity 2016, from July 1-3 at National Harbor’s Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.
More than 100 people attended the first day of the convention which featured dozens of exhibitors ranging from computers and robotics to 3D-printed cars. One of the displays included an exhibit from the Heinlein Prize Trust called, “Have Space Suit – Will Travel,” which is based on a science fiction book written by renowned author Robert A. Heinlein.
Don Thomas, a former astronaut turned scientist, educator and author, was on hand to help inform and excite the public about humans’ future in space. Thomas shared a booth with Eric Gignac, project manager and lead artist for the new graphic illustration of Heinlein’s book, which made its debut at the conventon.
“One of the things that I do now is I work in the field of informal science education,” Thomas said. “[Students and I] talk about spacesuits, the function and design of them all and then a few of the students get to try on the spacesuits which is a pretty cool thing for them. The most fun I have with them is putting the kids inside and letting them try on an actual spacesuit that was flown in space.”
During the convention, visitors were able to meet Thomas and Gignac, take photos and try on real mission-flown spacesuits. The spacesuits on display included a launch entry suit worn by current NASA Administrator Charles Frank Bolden Jr., and a Sokol spacesuit that was worn by American biochemistry researcher and former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, who is also NASA’s most experienced female astronaut.
“These suits are like museum pieces and to allow students to get inside, it’s a really nice follow on to reading the book,” said Thomas, a veteran of four space shuttle missions who spent a total of 44 days up in space. “The kids today, this is the next generation of astronauts. This is the generation that will be going to Mars in the future. NASA’s hoping to send astronauts there, somewhere in the 20 to 30 year timeframe. Astronauts like me are too old to go to Mars so it’s these young students today who will be undertaking those missions.”
For Thomas, science fiction is not only a great tool to bring young students together, but also get them thinking about the future missions to space they could be a part of one day, he said.
“That was my dream — my whole life was to make it up to space. I really wanted to go to the moon,” said Thomas, a native of Cleveland. “Neil Armstrong was one of my heroes. To see him walking on the moon and to describe looking back and seeing the Earth as just a blue ball in that black sky, I really wanted to experience that view. I didn’t get to do that but was able to make it on four shuttle missions so it’s been a dream of mine since I was just a little boy.”
Thomas said the whole idea of the Have Space Suit-Will Travel program is to get younger students excited and inspired.
“Something can spark their imagination. Maybe it’s seeing a spacesuit, trying on a glove or putting on the whole spacesuit or just hearing somebody else’s adventures of being in space which I’ll share with them,” he said. “Maybe that’s all we need to spark that one student and send them on their way.”
Gignac said his goal with the graphic novel is to bring the younger generation into Heinlein’s world and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers.
“We have gone to several science fiction conventions, some comic cons and stuff like that. We ask the question, ‘Do you know who Heinlein is?’ and nobody knew,” said Gignac, visual communications manager for the Virginia Edition Publishing Company which exclusively handles the entire works of Robert Heinlein. “It’s a shame because there’s a little bit of Heinlein in all of modern science fiction.”
For Gignac, it’s not just about the adventure, but the physics of it as well. A lot of modern engineers and scientists have credited Heinlein for their interest in space, he said.
“I’ve been impressed with his description of spacesuits and the technical detail. His book came out in 1958 [when] we didn’t have any astronauts up,” he said. “It’s a great, accurate description of the suits considering the time.”
Gignac, a graphic artist and concept illustrator for 30 years who is internationally recognized for his NASA mission and flight patch designs, also worked on the graphic illustra- tion for Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy.” Hoping to reintroduce Heinlein to the science fiction community, Gignac said he hopes his graphic novel adaptations will serve as a launch pad for capturing imaginations and expanding horizons.
“A complete story told visually,” Gignac said. “Kids like tangible things. They like to see the reality of what they’re doing. When they try on a spacesuit, they’re trying on history. With graphic novels, nothing can compete with your own imagination but it’s a take on it. When they look at it, it takes them into the world and they see things. Hopefully that encourages them to want to go deeper into the story by picking up the book and actually reading the book.”
“The graphic novel freshens it up and puts a new spin on it,” Thomas added. “I think it will bring in a new audience that might not go pick up that book off the shelf. It’s just another tool to expose kids to the stories and the message of Heinlein.”
Graphic novel artist Eric Gignac, far left, smiles as he puts a helmet that was previously worn by current NASA Administrator Charles Frank Bolden Jr. on a young boy’s head. Gignac has 30 years of experience as a concept illustrator and is...
Former NASA astronaut Don Thomas interacts with a group of kids from the Prince George’s County Boys & Girls Club as a few anxiously raise their hands after seeing a peer try on a Sokol spacesuit. The spacesuit was worn by American biochemistry...