To in­fin­ity and be­yond

For­mer NASA as­tro­naut, graphic novel artist share sto­ries to in­spire

The Enquire-Gazette - - Front Page - By JOHNATHON CLINKSCALES jclinkscales@somd­news.com

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...

STAFF PHO­TOS BY JOHNATHON CLINKSCALES

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...

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