Capt. Willie Daniels saw the next generation of heroes in the faces of the hundreds of students who packed the Cherokee Trail High School auditorium on Aug. 28.
Daniels, who's worked as a captain for United Airlines for nearly 40 years, put out a direct call to the high school students who had gathered to hear stories of ingenuity, bravery and adventure. He referred to the estimated loss of more than 68,000 airline pilots to retirement in the next decade. He cited the need for millions of engineers, astronauts and other highly trained personnel to keep the American aviation and aerospace industry vital and innovative. He spoke directly to students of all backgrounds when he put out a formal call to action.
"These individuals risk their life and limb for the betterment of all mankind," said Daniels, who proudly sported his pilot's uniform as he spoke to the crowd. "This is a historic opportunity (for you)."
The message isn't new for Daniels, who helped found the nonprofit Shades of Blue in 1999. Concerned by the national trend of importing talent from overseas to work in the high-tech sector and disheartened by the rapid expansion of the U.S. prison population, Daniels wanted to find a way to offer young people a different option. Since then, the mission of Shades of Blue has been to "provide young people with the educational opportunities, training and employment assistance needed to pursue careers in the aviation and aerospace industries, and to assist educators with the development of curricula that will prepare students for careers in those industries."
"At first I sought to be an astronaut, but I'm having a great time as an engineer. Persevere, don't give up on what you want to do, but learn how things work. I made myself versatile."
-- U.S. Air Force Astronaut and Engineer Livingston Holder, Jr.
Daniels and an impressive group of his colleagues brought the message behind that mission to Cherokee Trail students during an assembly that saw tales of hard training and harrowing space flights. The panel included pilot, astronaut and engineer Frederick Gregory, the first African American to pilot an American spacecraft; U.S. Air Force astronaut and engineer Livingston Holder, Jr.; and Dr. Jeanette Epps, a former CIA intelligence officer and current NASA astronaut.
The panel also included a member who'd explored the cosmos on the silver screen. Actor Herbert Jefferson Jr., who played Lieutenant Boomer on the "Battlestar Galactica" television series, sat among the engineers and astronauts as a representative of the power of pop culture to inspire paths to the stars.
Along with Daniels, the prestigious members of the panel offered a message rooted in discipline, hard work and unlimited possibility.
"You don't always have to achieve your target mission," said Holder, whose plans to travel to space were derailed after the Challenger accident in 1986. Holder instead thrived as an engineer, moving on to important roles at Boeing and the U.S. Department of Transportation after his service with the U.S. Air Force. "At first I sought to be an astronaut, but I'm having a great time as an engineer. Persevere, don't give up on what you want to do, but learn how things work. I made myself versatile."
Epps, who underwent NASA's demanding and rigorous astronaut training program in 2009, offered a similar message. Hard work and training are important, she noted, but so is the ability to be able to deal with the unexpected.
"You can be the smartest person on the planet, but you have to be adaptable and flexible," Epps said.
All of these messages aligned with the core mission of Shades of Blue. The presentation at a school in the Cherry Creek School District – which has an established aviation program and several concurrent enrollment options for students looking to take the next career steps – seemed ideal.
"Setting up an opportunity to work with the district was great. That was one of the reasons we were able to bring these distinguished folks here to offer wisdom and insight," said Daniels, who was headed to the Wings Over the Rockies Museum to host a reunion of more than a dozen black astronauts. "I'm in awe of these heroes."