Niko Blanks, of Signal Mountain, will graduate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida / Contributed photo in 2022.
Twenty-two-year-old Niko Blanks knows you can’t hang your head when your dreams are sky high.
Blanks, who has survived childhood cancer, dreams of going to Mars. As a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University in Daytona Beach, Florida, he will graduate this spring.
He has already completed several prestigious internships and will be working this fall at Kennedy Space Center for Blue Origin, a privately funded aviation manufacturer founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.
A graduate of Baylor School, Blanks faces significant headwinds over his space travel plans. As someone living with a tumor in his brain, he’s been told repeatedly that being an astronaut is a long way.
“To be honest, it’s tough,” he said of his odds. “What keeps me optimistic is that there are so many private companies [involved in space travel]. “
Blanks, who grew up on Signal Mountain, said space travel can become so routine during his lifetime that “whoever can go into space will be much wider.”
Coping with cancer has helped Blanks develop a deep source of persistence.
When he was six years old, he developed a painful headache while on Thrasher Elementary on Signal Mountain. Doctors performed an MRI and found a malformation and a tumor in his brain. His diagnosis was fibrillar astrocytoma. Brain surgery has turned off his headache, but the tumor remains.
“I live with it,” said Blanks. “It hasn’t changed or grown at all.
“I think I experienced so much at a young age that it made me mature a little faster,” he said. “It certainly helped me cherish the opportunities I had in my life.”
Growing up, Blanks had sparked his interest in space through frequent visits to Space Camp at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He eventually had a prominent role in “The Mars Generation,” a 2017 Netflix documentary about self-described “space nerds” attending Space Camp.
His Space Camp experience inspired Blanks to start a fundraiser to send children with cancer to Space Camp. A virtual auction earlier this year raised $ 25,000, enough to send eight families to Huntsville this year for the camp experience.
“Space Camp has inspired me a lot, and I’m sure it will inspire other kids when they get the chance to go,” he said.
Blanks is assisted by the Austin Hatcher Foundation, a childhood cancer nonprofit in Chattanooga, and Yuri’s Night, an American space enthusiast organization named after Yuri Gargarin, the Russian cosmonaut who became the first human in space on April 12, 1961.
Blanks said the Austin Hatcher Foundation helped with his cancer recovery when he was a child and that he is a member of Yuri’s Night. Lorretta Whitesides, co-founder of the organization, encouraged him to come up with a space project, he said, and it was his idea to provide Space Camp grants.
He said the scholarships will allow siblings and parents of children with cancer to travel to Space Camp with them.
“It [cancer] affects the child and the whole family, so we wanted the siblings to go too, ”said Blanks.
Blanks said that after getting his bachelor’s degree, he plans to attend graduate school to earn a master’s degree in engineering.
After that, the sky is the limit.
Please contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected]