Girl Scouts of Citrus Council,
– Sharon Hagle was listening to a guest lecture by Dr. Michio Kaku at Rollins College, and one bit of wisdom from the famed physicist resonated with her: If you don’t get children interested in math and science by 6 or 7 years old, you’ve lost them. Then she read a quote by British business magnate Sir Richard Branson: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are too small.”
It’s all about the kids. When I’m tired and really pushing myself, all I have to do is walk into a classroom, and I see those little inquiring eyes looking up and saying, ‘Can I be an astronaut?’ You just melt.
“That did it,” Hagle said. “I thought, ‘Somebody needs to do something, and we need to start now,’ and that’s when I started SpaceKids Global.”
Today, five years later, the nonprofit has reached more than 30,000 children with its mission of inspiring them to learn more about science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics + Environment or STEAM+. Hagle said she’s aiming for 1 million children in elementary schools, and she won’t stop there. SpaceKids Global recently launched a program with the Girl Scouts as part of a growing effort to get more young women interested in STEAM careers.
“Kids need to know they can make a difference,” she said. “I just felt something had to be done to get these kids excited because they are the next generation of space travelers.”
Hagle is just the person to lead that initiative. She and her husband, Marc, are known for their work in commercial real estate and development and for their philanthropic endeavors. In 2007, they were among the first people to enlist as future civilian astronauts with Virgin Galactic, founded by Branson, which today charges $250,000 per person to be on the list. The Hagles are part of a nonprofit they formed with fellow future Virgin Galactic fliers called Galactic Unite, which promotes the study of STEM and entrepreneurship.
Hagle started visiting Central Florida elementary schools with a 30-minute video and interactive presentation. She and SpaceKids Global’s mascot, Hagle’s five-pound Pomeranian Saba, wear their space suits. She challenges the children to draw a mission patch they’d like to see on their own space suits someday.
Hagle remembers when she was introduced to space travel. “I was in the sixth grade listening to a PA system when Alan Shepard was launched into space as the first American. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Well, yeah, that’s really cool, but what does it have to do with me? I’ll never go to space.’ And here we are today.”
The concept for SpaceKids Global came to Hagle after she and her husband were brainstorming with Branson at Necker Island, his private retreat in the Caribbean. “We did not want to be known just as the pioneers of civilian space travel, but we wanted to give back,” she said. “We want to be known for how we’ve been able to inspire others.”
The partnership with the Girl Scouts was a natural fit, she said, and is expected to bring 2.5 million girls to the SpaceKids Global program. The national Make Space for Girls campaign, sponsored by IT services and systems engineering company ProXops, will encourage Girl Scouts across the country to submit their ideas in a contest about space experiments. The winning project will fly aboard a SpaceX mission from Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station this August.
In the meantime, Hagle and her husband continue to train for their own spaceflight, although a date hasn’t been set. The two signed up after taking a zero-gravity flight at Kennedy Space Center. “It was his idea,” she said, laughing. “We did that while still on an adrenaline rush … I give full credit to Marc. He takes me out of my comfort zone.”
The two have trained at NASTAR in Philadelphia, where NASA astronauts complete their centrifuge training. They spent four days at Star City near Moscow with the Russian cosmonauts training program, which includes mock-ups of a Soyuz capsule and the space station, along with a flight aboard a Russian MiG-29 fighter jet at Mach 1.8.
Through it all, she said, they have experienced no motion sickness. In Russia, one of the tests requires the astronauts to touch their ears to their shoulders while being spun in a chair for two minutes. “Their pilots on the MiGs have to complete that test or they can’t become pilots,” she said. “It sounds easy, but it’s like being inside of a spinning top. If you lose your focus, you kind of wobble out of control.”
Focus is one thing Hagle has no intention of losing, in the air or on the ground. “It’s all about the kids,” she said. “When I’m tired and really pushing myself, all I have to do is walk into a classroom, and I see those little inquiring eyes looking up and saying, ‘Can I be an astronaut?’ You just melt.” ■