It is not often that a small independent school in a rural area is given the opportunity to meet a true American hero who also represents the best of the best in his field, but that is exactly what happened on Tuesday, October 6 when retired Astronaut Mark Kelly came to visit students at Powhatan School in Boyce, Virginia.

Mr. Kelly regaled 240 pairs of student eyes for over 30 minutes, describing in detail what it feels like to blast off from a launch pad at 17,500 miles per hour and orbit around the Earth every 90 minutes, taking in a sunrise and sunset every 45 minutes. He spoke of the time and focus it takes to learn how to operate the over 17,000 knobs, switches and pulls in the cockpit of the space shuttle. The students learned what kind of toll it takes on the human body to exist without gravity for an extended period of time, as his twin brother Scott is experiencing during his year-long stay on the International Space Station. Perhaps most importantly, he advised the students that just because you aren’t good at something right now, whether that is science or soccer or math, that fact has little bearing on how good they could be. In fact, he drew many parallels to his own experience in having difficulty with math at an early age and not naturally excelling at piloting aircraft. Kelly said, “I wasn’t really very good at this (flying) right at the beginning – I think Tom Cruise would have been better. How good you are right now at anything is not a good indicator of how good you can become.”  After his engaging talk, Captain Kelly signed over 90 copies books of his books, “Astrotwins, Project Blastoff” and “Mousetronaut” in the school’s library.

Kelly also spoke to over 280 guests that evening at a pledge dinner in support of Powhatan School’s Curiosity Ignited Capital Campaign, a campaign to expand STEM education at the school. The dinner event with Kelly as keynote speaker launched the campaign’s public phase with a goal of $1.395MM, half of which is already raised. Monies will support the renovation of lower and upper school science labs, constructing a boardwalk, gathering pavilion and wildlife observation deck in the school’s adjoining Crocker Conservancy, technology infrastructure investment and developing a STEM endowment fund to secure continued resources for these fields. Monies already raised have enabled the school to hire a full-time STEM instructor and a technology partner.

Kelly, husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords,  began his career at NASA in 1996 and made four trips to the International Space Station and commanded the shuttles Discovery and Endeavor.