MIDDLESBORO, Ky. — Teens in Middlesboro got an out-of-this world experience on Friday March 24; they interacted with alum, John Shoffner. Shoffner is a retired race car driver and businessman turned astronaut who was raised in Middlesboro.
Shoffner is piloting the second privately funded launch to the International Space Station (ISS) with Axiom Space. AX-2 will deploy later this year.
Shoffner, a STEM education advocate, partnered with his alma mater and helped launch a new STEM initiative for the district in the summer of 2022.
“I started thinking about being an astronaut or wanting to be an astronaut when I was real little,” Shoffner said.
As part of the partnership, three high school art students were commissioned to design a logo for the crew’s suits. Shelby Vaughn, a junior at Middlesboro High School, said art has become a passion.
“When I heard I got the opportunity to be picked, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a crazy opportunity,’” Vaughn said.
It features a yellow jacket, Middlesboro’s mascot in, of course, a space suit and an “M” for Middlesboro STEM on the flag.
“It’s insane, it’s crazy. I’m very excited that it’s actually going to space. It’s crazy to think that a small town from Middlesboro and you have something going from Middlesboro to space,” Vaughn said.
Junior Madeline Jackson said it’s hard to believe their design will be headed into space for a nearly two week long mission.
“It was a great honor. I was very excited that I would be able to design something that would have such an impact,” Jackson said.
Retired NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson joined Shoffner. Whitson is commanding and Shoffner is piloting Axiom Space’s latest mission.
They’re getting ready to deploy to the ISS and students asked him questions about his life as an astronaut and it shows them they can go anywhere; even out of this world.
“Often times, we get locked into this kind of geographical isolation here, especially in the mountains of Kentucky and here in the crater of Middlesboro. A lot of these kids don’t have opportunities to see beyond these mountains,” said Middlesboro STEM director, Chris Stotts.
Stotts says Shoffner has connections at MIT, Axiom and NASA and thanks to his generosity, the small town STEM program continues to take big strides.
“We have plans to build a state-of-the-art STEM lab that MIT is going to help us design in between the middle and high school here and that’s in planning. There’s been great things that have all been channeled through John’s generosity,” Stotts said.
The AX-2 mission will last 12 days, 10 of which will be in space.
Shoffner and the crew will deploy in May to the ISS and students will have another opportunity to interact with the crew as they navigate life in space..