How Sabrina Thompson is Taking the Next Generation to Space Through Sneakers and Design

From the Nike Space Hippie Series to the Tom Sachs x Nike Mars Yard Overshoe – and let us not forget the mania of the Galaxy Foamposites – space has inspired sneakers in more ways than one, and in turn, Sabrina Thompson is using sneakers to inspire the next generation of space explorers.

Sabrina Thompson. Image by Torren Moore.

“I know a lot of kids right now are into sneakers, so I was thinking to myself, how could I use sneakers to help kids be more interested in science, space, and tech,” said Sabrina Thompson, NASA Aerospace Engineer and Founder of the Girl In Space Club.

For years, Thompson has been doing outreach work with kids, visiting schools as a guest speaker to educate the youth about her job at NASA and all the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) behind it.

As Thompson was touring different schools throughout the DMV area, she noticed that kids were excited to meet a rocket scientist like herself, but they were having trouble connecting to the work that she does designing orbits and trajectories for NASA missions – it is rocket science after all.

With a field of study as vast as space, it’s understandable why kids may not immediately gravitate towards NASA, which created a challenge for Thompson as she was trying to inspire kids to seek out careers in STEM.

“I wanted to bring space exploration down to Earth for kids, using art and fashion,” said Thompson. “And what better way to do it than to focus on the footwear aspect?”

As a result, STEMulating Art was born, Thompson’s very own youth program that uses art projects to introduce children to hands-on STEM concepts used by engineers, scientists, and technicians.

STEMulating Art workshops are designed to encourage young minds to get creative in design and STEM in order to come up with out-of-the-box ideas and innovative solutions. With creativity, critical thinking, and fun at the center of everything that STEMulating Art does, Thompson believes that this program has the ability to inspire and encourage the genius thinkers of tomorrow.

“Our curriculum that we’re building for the kids is starting off with sneakers, but the stuff we’re doing with them is going to inspire the products that we put out there tomorrow. Our plan is to be the outfitters for people that go in space,” said Thompson. “The stuff that these kids are working on, we want them to be inspired and see that the process that we’re teaching them is how to go about using science in design, and thinking to build things like a prototype shoe. We want our projects to encourage kids to continue building these skills and showing them the types of things they could make.”

Students making prototype sneakers at the STEMulating Art workshop.

Thompson herself does not have a formal background in design, as she majored in Mechanical Engineering at Stony Brook University and later received her Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Thompson decided to go back to school, this time at the Shoe Surgeon’s SRGN Academy. The Surgeon’s online course not only taught Thompson how to handcraft her own sneakers, but also inspired her to redesign the STEMulating Art program.

“Before The Shoe Surgeon, I had the kids making shoes using 3D pens,” said Thompson. “But after I took the Shoe Surgeon’s class, I stopped using the 3D pens with the students and then started having the kids build up different shoe types by cutting out different components of the shoe using arts-and-crafts materials. So from there, that’s how all of it started. I basically wanted to bridge the gap between fashion, art, and STEM.” 

Although STEMulating Art is made up of mostly third to sixth graders, Thompson doesn’t hold back from jumping straight into complex theories and STEM concepts.

“We literally teach them Newton’s Law of Motion,” said Thompson. “We teach them the concept of how things move and literally break down the physics.”

“With Newton’s Law of Motion, when you think about how you’re moving, you think about your feet,” Thompson added. “You’re walking, running, dancing, or whatever. We literally break that concept down with the kids and talk about how moving on Earth is different than moving on the Moon, based off Newton’s law.”

From there, Thompson proses her ultimate question to the kids: “How can [you] design a pair of kicks that literally allows astronauts to explore the lunar surface.”

Ultimately, Thompson wants children to realize that STEM is just as much creative and playful, as it is technical and challenging.

“We have them come up with their own ideas of what it means to explore the lunar surface with their kicks and what their kicks are enabling,” said Thompson. “The only thing they can’t do is design another pair of sneakers that already exist. It has to be something that’s innovative. It has to be something that you use to demonstrate your understanding of the laws. The kids come up with the wildest ideas. I want them to keep that energy and foster it.”

In many ways, Thompson’s STEMulating Art program is the first of its kind as garments for space travel and exploration remain an ever-changing unknown.

“As a NASA engineer, a lot of the time we design things that are ‘the first,’ like some science came down [from space] and now we have to figure out what to do with it,” said Thompson. “As I continue to learn more about astronauts traveling and moving in space, I realized it’s going to be [a similar situation] with the footwear.”

“Although astronauts have walked on the moon before and we have some heritage in terms of the footwear that was used – we’ve seen videos of astronauts bouncing all over the place and tripping, [and we need to] understand why that is,” Thompson added.

“So how do you design a pair of footwear that you can integrate with an EVA suit,” she continued. “What kind of footwear would you want to wear in a vehicle while you’re in space? What could we build and test in space as far as footwear? Would you want to bring your AJ1s to space?”

Prototype sneaker made by one of the STEMulating Art students.

Being that STEMulating Art is an offshoot of Thompson’s Girl In Space Club, the program consists of mostly young girls, which has unfortunately caused many to doubt the program since its inception.

“I did my first workshop and people were telling me girls wouldn’t want to do it,” said Thompson. “They said, ‘Girls just aren’t interested in STEM.’”

While sneakers and space may be different in many ways, one thing that they have in common is that women are severely underrepresented. Through initiatives like Girl In Space Club and STEMulating Art, Thompson hopes to educate and create more opportunities for women and people of color, resulting in change that will ripple throughout the Milky Way.

“If you want more girls to be included, you have to meet them where they are,” said Thompson. “When you include women and more people of color, the creativity will be [limitless.]”

Students at the STEMulating Art workshop.

Currently, Thompson is in the midst of pushing women even further along in space exploration as she is in the process of developing the first ever space travel suit – for women, by women.

Through a successful Kickstarter campaign, Thompson raised $80,000 to actualize the suit from concept to reality. The flight suit is currently being tested by the all-female astronaut crew, Hypatia I, at their analog mission to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

Sabrina Thompson’s female-engineered flight suit being tested by the Hypatia I analog mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Image via @Hypatia_Mars.

The flight suits that NASA currently uses are made from the same pattern of the 1960’s flight suits, which are based off military specs. The look and fit of the suits haven’t been updated in decades, but the main problem is the inconvenience it causes women when having to use the bathroom – which many men are completely unaware of.

“Again, these are male dominated fields, and I remember some guy asking me, ‘What’s wrong with the flight suits?’” said Thompson. “And not to bash anybody, but it’s just not a problem men face.”

“A lot of times, the girls that I work with want to know if I face any form of discrimination,” Thompson added. “Some of them assume that I do and they want to know how I handle it. I’m very transparent and very real because I think it’s beneficial. I try not to sugarcoat it because it is what it is. Honestly, [STEM] is changing, but it’s going to take some time. There’s still some discrimination that women experience, but I try to encourage them to not be afraid.”

Sabrina Thompson in her flight suit. Picture by Pat Bourque.

For many of the people that work at NASA, being a part of the administration has always been a lifelong dream, but for Thompson, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The native New Yorker grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island playing basketball, collecting sneakers, and drawing. Because of this, she sees a lot of herself in the kids that she works with.

“When I do outreach on behalf of NASA, I see the disparity between kids that have been exposed to engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and people like that in their lives. As opposed to the inner city kids, who were bored by [NASA] coming to their school on career day. They don’t know what we’re talking about, but when I talk about basketball, art, or sneakers, it’s like okay, now they’re listening.”

Thompson can still remember getting her first pair of Jordans, which just so happened to be the iconic 1996 Air Jordan 11 “Playoff,” better known today as the Bred 11s. Being a hooper herself, Thompson couldn’t get enough of all the basketball silhouettes that the 90’s had to offer and was a big fan of Allen Iverson’s Reebok Questions. She’s also a lifelong lover of the classic “Uptowns,” but is currently in her Nike Blazer era.

Sabrina Thompson in her flight suit. Picture by Pat Bourque.

Being that basketball and art were the only things that Thompson cared about growing up, she didn’t spend too much time thinking about her future or what she wanted to do. In fact, it wasn’t until the 12th grade, when her art teacher told her to pursue engineering, that she had even considered STEM.

“[My teacher] knew I loved to draw all day and that art came natural to me, but she also knew I was the top student in the school,” said Thompson. “She knew [I was good at] math and science, and she knew that I probably didn’t know that I could combine my ability to be creative, with my ability to solve problems and be analytical. I think that’s why she suggested mechanical engineering, because I know how to work both sides of the brain.”

At the time, Thompson couldn’t even Google what an engineer was (since it wasn’t invented yet) so she grabbed an encyclopedia to see what the job would entail. While she still was more or less unsure about it, she trusted her art teacher and never looked back. Finally, after many years of school and a lot of internships, Thompson eventually ended up at NASA.

“I put the paintbrush down and didn’t do art for a while,” said Thompson. “I had an internship every summer and have so many different experiences because mechanical engineering is so broad.”

“One summer I worked at Honda Manufacturing where they were making the ‘07 Honda Accord and the Acura TL, at the time. I was like, wow, these systems are really complex when you break down all the different components of a car. So then I was thinking, what’s more complex than this? Spacecraft — and that’s how I landed on NASA.”

Sabrina Thompson.

Despite the fact that Thompson now has over 12 years of experience working at NASA, she is most proud of her work with STEMulating Art and the Girl In Space Club.

“I feel like I’m doing my life’s work. This is what I was designed to do,” said Thompson. “Kids need inspiration and empowerment. I know what my gifts and talents are, and for me, there’s no sense in having them if I don’t use them to inspire and uplift others. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m hoping that some kid – even if it’s just one – takes what I’ve put out there and is inspired by it.”

Moving forward, Thompson hopes to grow Girl In Space Club and STEMulating Art workshops, and even dreams of one day collaborating with Pharrell Williams.

“I am so inspired by Pharrell. He’s awesome,” said Thompson. “I’ve always been a fan of him and was inspired by Billionaire Boys Club. It was definitely inspiration for Girl In Space Club. I drew so much inspiration from Pharrell and would love to work with him one day.”

Thompson definitely plans on visiting space herself some day, most likely through a space tourism company like Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic. When that day comes, she knows exactly what sneakers she’ll be wearing.

“Those will be the [astronaut] sneakers that I design and bring to life.”

Stay connected with Sabrina Thompson and Girl In Space Club on Instagram to see behind the scenes of the STEMulating Art workshops.

For more sneaker news and release dates, follow @NiceKicks on Instagram.

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