TAMPA — Growing up, Bruce Melnick wanted to be a fisherman like his father.
No one in his family had gone to college, so despite his good grades in math and science at Clearwater High School, he hadn't considered furthering his education.
But his mother had other plans. She encouraged him to attend the Coast Guard Academy, where he earned a degree in engineering.
And it paid off.
Melnick, 64, later went on to become a NASA astronaut, flying in two missions in space, in 1990 and 1992.
Now retired seven years, there is still time to be a fisherman, he told a group of sixth-graders at Stewart Middle Magnet School in Tampa on Thursday.
"You all have your whole lives ahead of you," Melnick said. "Go ahead and reach for the stars. I always say, 'the sky is no longer the limit.' "
Melnick was at Stewart to help induct 27 students into the school's John Glenn Top Gun Academy, which is an honor society for students who earn high grades and have a strong interest in aerospace.
To become members, students must fill out applications and go through interviews.
"It's an entire process," STEM lead teacher Josephine Corder said.
The reward for entrance, though, is worth the work, Corder said.
Each year, a different astronaut, physicist or astronomer visits with the school. The students got to spend the day Thursday with Melnick, who shared his experiences aboard Discovery and Endeavour, regaling them with stories of what a space launch feels like.
In April, the students will head to Kennedy Space Center on the annual two-day, all-expenses-paid trip, where they'll have a behind-the-scenes tour, Corder said.
That is why Jeffrey Potvin, 11, of Lutz, joined.
"I like all the field trips we get to go on," Jeffrey said, wearing the medal he received at the induction ceremony around his neck.
Destanie Johnson, 12, of Tampa, was also inducted Thursday. She said she joined because she likes to think of all the possibilities space has to offer.
"I'm waiting for them to find some kind of rocket to get us to another galaxy," Destanie said.
As a NASA Explorer School, Stewart attracts students from across Hillsborough County with an interest in aerospace. The school, on Spruce Street, focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
"Ask our kids the importance of STEM and they'll say, 'Where else can you go to school and build and design robots and rockets and video games?' " Corder said. "This is where all the excitement is."
Melnick remembers how excited he was upon hearing the news as a child about the first man to go into space. He hopes to pass that spark along to the next generation.
"If I have a chance to help just one student and put them on the right path," Melnick said, "then, it is all worth it."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.