If you’ve driven around Middlesboro this spring, you may have seen things are looking a bit “space-y”. Many shops and downtown storefronts along Cumberland Avenue have had their windows painted to show support for the upcoming Axiom Space launch.

In an upcoming mission for Axiom Space, Middlesboro native, John Shoffner will pilot the SpaceX Dragon as it lifts off in route to the International Space Station (ISS). American astronaut legend and former commander of the ISS, Peggy Whitson, will serve as commander for the 12-day mission. Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) is the organization’s second private mission to the space station and will aide in the organization’s move to establish the world’s first commercial space station.

Growing up in Middlesboro during the space race, John had an early interest in space and science. As an 8-year old, John and his friends created a young astronauts club as they followed the early Apollo and Gemini missions. Throughout his life, John’s passion for space and science never escaped him, and neither did his ambitions of becoming an astronaut. Though he found success in business and industry, John never gave up on his dream of traveling into space. With the Axiom group positioning itself as a leader in the private aerospace arena, it has provided an accomplished pilot like John the perfect opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream of launching into orbit.

As a STEM-education advocate, John hopes to use his space venture to ignite a passion for STEM learning and inspire students to pursue their own ambitions. Coupling his love for science and his desire to provide students in his hometown a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share in his space experience, Mr. Shoffner has partnered with Middlesboro schools to provide students an inside look into life on the space station and his preparation for the mission. On March 24th, 2023, a group of students from Middlesboro Middle School and aerospace engineering students from Middlesboro High School took part in a live video chat with Shoffner and Peggy Whitson from Axiom Mission Control. During this live session, the astronauts shared some details of their upcoming mission and shared with students what life has been like as they have been preparing for the launch. Shoffner and Whitson fielded questions from the students which ranged from how the astronauts mentally prepare for a mission such as this to what types of research they would be engaged in during their time in orbit.

While on-board the space station, Shoffner will take part in two separate engagements with students on ground in Middlesboro. One engagement comes through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) group. This contact will allow a 10-minute conversation between students and astronauts aboard the ISS through amateur radio.

The second engagement will be a live interactive video event in which students will have a live peek into the space station as Shoffner and the students participate in an interactive demonstration. In gearing up for this event, students and teachers throughout the district have been participating in space-related activities and have been studying a number of different topics presented through the lens of space and space exploration.

Student groups have participated in activities including rocket design and construction, lunar and Martian habitat design, and reflective writing about space survival. Students have also taken part in a global art contest sponsored by Shoffner through a partnership with Crayola.

The winners of this contest will be announced live from the space station. Additionally, a group of art students from Middlesboro High School designed a logo that will be featured as a patch on the flight suits of the Axiom astronauts. This logo features a yellow jacket donned in a space suit and boasts the slogan, “Beyond the Crater” — a sentiment that encompasses not only Shoffner’s dream of one day reaching the stars, but also the vision he has for the students in Middlesboro as they pursue their own aspirations.

As the mission nears its launch window, Middlesboro has rightfully been abuzz with all things “space” as the town joins in the excitement of such an incredible venture. In addition to painting windows, local businesses have jumped onboard in participation with merchandise sales featuring the school’s logo and some even creating space-themed drinks in celebration. As only a few more than 600 individuals have ever traveled to space, few communities and schools ever have the opportunity to collectively share the experience with a hometown hero as he fulfills one of his lifelong dreams. However, that is just what John Shoffner has provided for Middlesboro, an opportunity for its students and citizens to accompany him as he launches “Beyond the Crater.”

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