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And We Have Lift-Off...

During the summer holidays we’ve just enjoyed, it was the 50 year anniversary of the first moon landing. What a truly incredible feat. As the familiar old news footage of the moon landing was replayed across modern media outlets to mark the anniversary, I realised the extent to which we have grown up with the idea that humans can go to the moon if they choose. But just imagine how ambitious and incredible it sounded when the idea of going to the moon was first spoken about.

The President of the USA in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy, saw that the Russians were achieving more headlines about their successful space travel and wanted to find a way for the USA to achieve something the Russians hadn’t. He tasked his Vice President with talking to the leading minds from NASA, industry and the military to find out what truly impressive feat might be feasible.  The suggestion came back that "with a strong effort" the United States "could conceivably" beat the Soviets in sending a man around the moon or landing a man on the moon. The reality was that nobody had a rocket strong enough to reach the moon, so this meant going beyond the scope of what existed. The goal was set: before a joint session of Congress in 1961, President Kennedy announced the aim for the USA to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.  At that point, the total time spent in space by an American was barely 15 minutes and the challenge ahead was huge.

There are many different personalities associated with that momentous moon landing but one whose fascinating story received a lot of coverage this summer was JoAnn Morgan.  When JoAnn was growing up, she planned to be a piano teacher but, aged 17, she saw America’s first satellite launched into space and had a dramatic change of direction.  She recalled: 

“I thought ‘Oh my goodness, this new knowledge is going to change the world we live in and I want to be part of it.’ No other girls that were my friends, or grown women, thought that was a viable path for life. Not for a female.”  

Despite the lack of support, and the immense academic challenge required, JoAnn secured a summer engineering internship at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Cape Canaveral, Florida (which merged into the US space agency, NASA, in 1962) where she was involved in helping test and launch rockets under the leadership of rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun and his team.  JoAnn forged a career in NASA and was the only female engineer working on the Apollo 11 mission and the only woman in the firing room as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted-off to the moon on 16 July 1969.

The moon landing has inspired generations of children to utter the words ‘When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut’.  Amongst our staff and pupils there may be many who had that childhood dream, and maybe a few who still aspire to head for the stars… For Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to live and work in space, that dream became a reality in recent years.  For six months, Tim’s job was to run vital experiments, such as investigating new vaccines and monitoring the Earth’s climate, on board the International Space Station. On 15 December 2015, the nation watched as Tim Peake successfully launched from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome at 11:03 GMT. But getting to that point took much more than ambition and aspiration - the years of dedication and hard work that lay behind the realisation of Tim’s dream was phenomenal. Just to get onto the programme, Tim was selected from 8,000 applicants (all of whom had the basic requirements of ‘a minimum of 1,000 hours experience flying different high-performance aircraft as well as a degree in natural sciences, medicine, engineering, IT or mathematics). The screening process then lasted a year, during which he could have been rejected at any time. Through numerous exams testing intelligence and essential skills such as memory, spatial awareness and concentration, the pool was whittled down from 900 to six. The assessments turned to examine personality and health and, only after this lengthy process, did the training begin. Tim then had to study vast quantities of material covering subjects including space law, rocket propulsion, space flight engineering and he learnt to speak Russian. 

As we embark on a new academic year, what can we take from the awe-inspiring stories of mankind’s first step on the moon, JoAnn Morgan’s trailblazing career and Tim Peake’s realisation of a dream?  Our pupils at St John’s know that I frequently tell them to be aspirational and aim high but, crucially, I want them to discover the things that matter to them and to forge their own paths. In this ever changing world, I want them to be open to opportunity and to keep their horizons broad, to allow their ideas and dreams to be challenged, and maybe changed, by new developments. It is only by being brave enough to operate outside our comfort zones that we can discover our full potential.

However, what is clear from the stories we have been considering here is that dreaming big and aiming high is not enough in itself. President Kennedy, JoAnn Morgan and Tim Peake didn’t make their aspirations a reality without a vast amount of energy and hard work. There has to be substance behind our hopes and dreams, and the trajectory will not always be skyward, there will be moments on the way when it seems that a goal might be out of reach. As we celebrated the successes of our GCSE and A level pupils this summer, I reflected that some of the most impressive results came not from those who had clean sweeps of A*s and 9s, but from those who slogged it out to reach an end goal that took them beyond what they might ever have expected to achieve. They were relentless in their pursuit of their desired outcome and they kept going whatever setbacks they faced; their successes are hard won and well deserved.  

Although we like to challenge our pupils, I’m not planning to ask them to do anything as complex as land a rocket on the moon. But I do ask them to make sure that, for whatever they are trying to achieve, they have the fundamentals in place: 

  • Be hungry for opportunities and be ready for them.
  • Turn up to everything ready to learn, to rehearse, to be coached.
  • Be on time!
  • Bring your kit, your pen, your book…learn your lines.
  • Know that to achieve in everything that matters to you, at the highest level you can, you will have to fail on occasion along the way (and know that you will learn so much from those moments).
  • Understand that it will be hard work, but that it will be worth it.

So here we are - at the start of a new academic year - let’s see where the journey takes us!

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey