NASA astronaut to students: ‘Life is full of possibility’


By Kevin Spradlin

HAMLET — Joan E. Higginbotham was down but certainly not out.

The Chicago native had a choice. Go back to school or give up her dream of flying in space.

Christina Robinson | Retired NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham, left, meets with a student Tuesday night at Cole Auditorium.

Christina Robinson |
Retired NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham, left, meets with a student Tuesday night at Cole Auditorium.

“I was devastated,” Higginbotham told an attentive audience Tuesday night at Cole Auditorium in Hamlet as Community in Schools of Richmond County staged its end-of-year program for staff, students and volunteers. CIS Executive Director Fallon Brewington opened up Higginbotham’s presentation to the general public, at no charge, to help  motivate and inspire students across Richmond County to want more.

“I really, really wanted to fly on the shuttle.”

She’d already finished high school and six years of college, Higginbotham said, “and they wanted me to have more education.”

She asked herself, “How badly do I want this? The answer was, ‘pretty darned bad.’ I went back to school yet again” and 18 months later NASA selected her as part of a mission to space.

“It would have been so easy to give up,” Higginbotham said. “I thought about it a couple times, but I didn’t.”

And that’s the crux of the retired astronaut’s message to some 200 local CIS students and others in attendance Tuesday night.

Christina Robinson |

Christina Robinson |

“Life is full of possibility,” Higginbotham said. “You can be anything you want to be.”

The third black woman to fly to space — she spent 12 days, 20 hours and 45 minutes looking down on Earth — said while in high school, she was faced with life’s big questions. Where should she go to college? What would she do with the rest of her life?

Then she realized everything she needed to know was learned in pre-school — sharing, saying please and thank  you, looking both ways before crossing a street, washing our hands “and most importantly, don’t pick your nose in public.”

In an engaging, down-to-earth style, the retired astronaut sparked the imaginations of Richmond County’s youth in an attempt to inspire them to seek more from life.

As a rocket scientist in Florida, Higginbotham thought she had it made.

The job “was so cool I can’t even begin to tell you,” she said.

Then her supervisor challenged her to challenge herself.

“I thought that I had made it and I had it made,” Higginbotham said, “but someone opened my eyes to some possibilities other than being a rocket scientist. I already thought I had the coolest job in the world (but) getting to fly on the shuttle? That would be sick.”

The selection process was one part intimidating and one part humiliating. She was one of 6,000 applicants the first time around and then one of 122 invited to be interviewed in Houston. There, she was surrounded by many whom she felt were far more qualified than she was. She was right.

“After six long, long months of waiting, guess what? I wasn’t (selected). I was devastated. I really, really wanted to fly on that shuttle.”

She returned to school and reapplied to become an astronaut. Eighteen months later, she was accepted.

“All my life, I’ve been told the sky’s the limit. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. I know the sky is no longer the limit. I’ve literally been above and beyond the sky.”

CIS-Richmond County, said Brewington, is part of a national dropout prevention network and one of more than 30 such networks in North Carolina. The group’s mission is to surround students with sufficient community support so as to deter them from leaving school early. In the current academic year, the local chapter is served more than 2,000 students, Brewington said, and case-managed more than 200 students.

Michelle Parrish, vice chair of the board of directors, recognized the board members and staff that make the work possible., as well as the support from partners such as the Duke Energy Foundation, Discovery Place KIDS-Rockingham, Pee Dee Electric, Richmond County Health Department, The House of Fish and Walmart.

Parrish also thanked the CIS volunteers.

Higginbotham was introduced to the crowd by Dobbins Heights Mayor Antonio Blue, who also serves on the CIS board of directors. It was Blue who was credited with luring Higginbotham to Richmond County to speak at the end-of-year program.




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