In celebration of National Education Week, former NASA Chief Astronaut and active Axiom Commander Peggy Whitson and Ax-2 Pilot John Shoffner virtually connected with a room full of 180 wide-eyed eighth-grade girls from Cranbrook Middle School in Michigan.
Whitson, who holds more time in space than any American or woman in history, inspired the next generation of dreamers with her story of climbing the ranks in the male-dominated aerospace industry. Throughout her career, she has held various positions, including NASA’s chief of the Astronaut Office, two-time commander of the International Space Station, chair of NASA’s Astronaut Selection Board, Chief of NASA’s Operations Branch, and deputy division Chief for both Medical Sciences and the Astronaut Office, as well as co-chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Working Group.
“Whitson’s trailblazing journey not only breaks barriers but also instills in young minds the importance of resilience, determination, and leadership,” said STEM teacher and event host Ashlie Smith. “By having Whitson as a role model, young girls are empowered to envision a future where their aspirations are limitless, and they are equipped to challenge and overcome any obstacles on their path to success.”
As Whitson shared her personal journey, the room filled with optimism. The message was simple: if you can see her, you can be her.
“There are so many opportunities out there right now – whether you want to be an astronaut or just work in the space field,” Whitson shared. “Even fashion design.”
Whitson was joined by Ax-2 Pilot John Shoffner, who encouraged students to follow their calling. Shoffner dreamed of going to space since he was eight years old. His small-town upbringing denied him the belief that he could be an astronaut one day. Though he became a successful entrepreneur, race car driver, pilot, and skydiver – that eight-year-old voice in his head never left. He was born to be an astronaut. In May 2023, Shoffner went to space. Now, he’s on a mission to encourage young minds to relentlessly pursue their purpose.
Together, Whitson and Shoffner shared highlights from their Ax-2 mission, shed light on the many careers that exist within the space industry (aside from being an astronaut!), and celebrated the students’ bright futures as the next leaders of the space program.
“Inviting special guests, such as Astronauts Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner, to my classroom holds immense value by offering real-world perspectives, inspiring students with tangible success stories, and providing unique opportunities for interactive engagement,” said Smith. “These accomplished individuals bring expertise that goes beyond traditional curriculum, bridging the gap between theory and practical application. The interactive nature of guest sessions fosters a dynamic learning environment, making the educational experience more memorable and relevant.”
The session concluded with a Q&A, big smiles, and bigger aspirations.
With his mission behind him and his ambition to support the growth of STEAM education across his home state of Kentucky, Astronaut Shoffner has launched The Perseid Foundation. Its mission is to build a world-class STEAM program for underserved communities in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, International Space Station National Lab, Axiom Space, Limitless Space Institute, Crayola Experience, and more. For more information, visit https://perseidfoundation.org