As a kid, Michelle Lucas (’00) knew she was destined for out-of-this-world experiences. Her passion for space was ignited at a young age and became her “guiding star.”
“I watched the first space shuttle flight when I was a little girl, and I fell in love immediately. I told everyone that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. Lucas was devastated when she learned as an adult that a medical condition would prevent her from becoming an astronaut. But she found another way to pursue her passion.
Today, the communications alumna is founder and president of Higher Orbits, a nonprofit that uses spaceflight to inspire and engage high school students through science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM), and hands-on, project-based learning. In July, the nonprofit received a $1 million grant from Blue Orbit’s Club for the Future.
The surprise grant gave Lucas a much-needed lift. “It gives us the ability to think long term,” she says. “We have some large initiatives that are going to be made possible because of this.”
‘Making It’ in Space
The roots of Higher Orbits run deep. The organization is the culmination of Lucas’s own educational experiences, her love of space and a 10-year career working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Lucas credits Embry-Riddle for helping her find her ideal career path. “Communications and being able to specialize in space studies at Embry-Riddle was a game-changer for me,” she says. “It combined everything that I really wanted to do in the world.”
Lucas recalls the moment she knew she’d “made it” in the space industry. “There was a day that I’d done something for one of the crews on orbit and they called down and thanked me by name. I was giddy.” Seeing her excitement, the flight director copied the transmission on a cassette tape and gave it to Lucas. “I literally ran to Walmart to buy a six-pack of blank cassette tapes and went home to copy them on my boombox. I sent one to my mom, my dad and my grandma, because my name was said from space,” she says.
Now, Lucas shares that enthusiasm with students across the United States. “I get to offer kids opportunities that they might not think they have access to. That’s really meaningful to me,” she says.
To date, Higher Orbits’ flagship program, Go For Launch!, has engaged more than 1,500 students and sent 13 of their experiments to space. During the pandemic, Lucas added Space at Home kits to Higher Orbits’ programming, which allow students to conduct experiments on their own or with astronauts and other space professionals via live webinars.
Lucas continues to be a fan of Embry-Riddle and is an avid supporter of its students and graduates. As a member of Embry-Riddle’s College of Arts and Sciences Industry Advisory Board since 2017, she also helps guide and inform the college curricula.
Lucas recently hired her first employee, Katy Thompson (’21), also a graduate of the communication program. Thompson, now director of communications, interned for Lucas before joining Higher Orbits full time. Thompson says the Higher Orbits’ mission resonated with her. “I love that kids have this outlet to develop an interest in space, because it’s something that I wish I’d had as a kid.”
To this day, Lucas says she follows her “guiding star” — and despite her medical diagnosis, she’s hopeful that one day she’ll fly in space. “Like I tell our students, just because the answer is no, now, it doesn’t mean it will be no, forever.”