NASA Administrator Bill Nelson visits Challenger Learning Center of Tallahassee

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, center, and his wife, Grace, introduce themselves to J. Murray Gibson, left, Dean of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering; Richard McCullough, President of Florida State University, and Larry Robinson, President of Florida A&M University at the Challenger Learning Center of Tallahassee. (Mark Wallheiser/FAMU-FSU College of Engineering)

Florida State University and Florida A&M University welcomed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson to the Challenger Learning Center of Tallahassee on Friday.

The center is the K-12 outreach facility of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, the joint engineering institution for the two universities. Nelson joined FSU President Richard McCullough and FAMU President Larry Robinson for a tour, where he talked to engineering students about their research, encouraged middle school students learning about space, and spoke about his time as an astronaut and NASA’s goals for the future.

FSU and FAMU, along with the University of Central Florida, the Air Force Research Laboratory and four NASA centers, are partners on a FAMU-led project to recruit more underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in aerospace engineering and give them hands-on training and experience. That work is funded by a $1.2 million grant from NASA.

“NASA is a 21st century agency with 22nd century goals,” Nelson said. “To be successful, it’s critical that NASA engages a diverse group of voices and partners, because diversity ensures multiple viewpoints, new ways of thinking and solutions to problems once thought unsolvable. NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project — and our partnership with the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering — is just one, critical way the agency is working to open doors for students across the country.”

That is part of NASA’s mission to make sure the next generation of scientists and engineers is prepared to take over the extraordinary work the agency does, he said.

Nelson traveled to space as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986. On Friday, he recounted some of the challenges of spaceflight to his audience. He also spoke about NASA’s Artemis mission, which will return astronauts to the moon and explore more of the lunar surface.

For students interested in an aerospace career or the wonders of space exploration, hearing from the NASA administrator is inspiring, said FAMU-FSU College of Engineering Dean J. Murray Gibson. The college — and the partnership between FSU and FAMU that it represents — is helping to make those goals into reality in a unique way.

“Bill Nelson is a wonderful advocate for NASA’s mission, and he spoke about the space workforce of the future looking much more like America than in the past,” Gibson said. “The uniqueness of our college is that we partner the research capabilities of a top national research university with the mission of a top HBCU, and so we are specially suited to deliver a more diverse highly trained workforce. Our unique combination of research and diversity is the key thing.”