Former mission operations director for NASA, a Hobart graduate, tells young scientists they can soar
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent January 12, 2014 12:04AM
Former NASA instructor Michelle Ham talks with a group of kids that attended the Science Olymiad at Valparaiso University Saturday afternoon and tells them about her experiances within the program over the years. | Dan Shelton/for Sun-Times Media
For more on the Mission Discovery camp, which will be July 21 to 25 at Valparaiso University, go to isset.org/mission_discovery/valparaiso_2014.php.
Updated: February 13, 2014 6:57AM
VALPARAISO — Michelle Ham, a 1996 graduate of Hobart High School who worked with astronauts for NASA for 10 years, had a simple message Saturday for a Valparaiso University auditorium full of budding scientists.
“I wasn’t any different from you,” she said.
Relating easily to middle and high school students from throughout the region on campus for a Science Olympiad invitational competition, Ham shared what she called her “a-ha moments,” and how her love of space drove her through even the most difficult moments in math and science classes.
Ham earned a degree in aeronautic engineering from Purdue University before heading to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida for graduate work.
Middle and high school were “where I really focused on science and math, even when it got really hard,” Ham said.
All she wanted to do when she got out of school was work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but jobs were scarce. Still, she landed a safety job with the International Space Station, and moved on to become a mission operations director.
“I was amazed every day at work,” she said, adding she put together plans executed by astronauts on the space station.
But it was when she conveyed football scores to one of the astronauts on a mission in 2001 that she had her first “a-ha moment,” after she found out that simple act made the astronaut’s week.
“It all paid off in that moment,” she said. “I’m getting to do what I love and getting to do it with some amazing people.”
From there, she became an instructor, training astronauts for their flights to the space station. That provided another one of those moments, when Russian astronauts she trained for 2½ years headed up to the space station.
Now, Ham is an independent consultant and was instrumental in creating Mission Discovery, a summer camp program held around the globe that is coming to VU in July. It offers middle and high school students the chance to have one of their experiments go to the space station.
Ham never expected to be where she is, traveling the globe and encouraging students to reach out to space.
“Sometimes, the doors that open that go a different way than you thought change your life forever,” she said.