Cleared of Charges in School Explosion, Fla. Honor Student Heads to Space Camp
(LAKELAND, Fla.) -- Kiera Wilmot is going to space camp.
In late April, the 16-year-old central Florida honor student was accused of igniting a chemical explosion on school grounds, leading to her arrest and suspension from school, but authorities dropped criminal charges last week.
The nightmarish ordeal was shocking for her single mother, Marie Wilmot, who always encouraged Kiera and her twin sister, Kayla, to follow their passions.
"The initial phone call was terrifying," Marie told ABC News. "Time will help I hope, it was devastating for me as a mother."
While school officials debate whether Kiera will return to Bartow High School, the Wilmot family received an unexpected surprise.
The explosion struck a chord with 18-year NASA veteran Homer Hickam, a former lead astronaut training manager for Spacelab, and later for the International Space Station.
In the late 1950s, Hickam had a brush with law enforcement for allegedly starting a forest fire. State police came to his high school and led him and his friends away in handcuffs, but his high school physics professor and school principal came to the rescue, clearing him of wrongdoing.
Back then, schools did not have zero-tolerance rules. Kids could make their mistakes without the threat of a criminal record, or serving time in jail.
"I couldn't let this go without doing something," Hickam said. "I'm not a lawyer, but I could give her something that would encourage her. I've worked closely with the U.S. Space Academy, and so I purchased a scholarship for her."
Learning of her twin sister, Hickam raised enough money so Kiera and Kayla could attend space camp together. Hickam runs several scholarships for kids with potential, and hopes to create an ongoing Space Academy scholarship. The twins will attend in July.
The five-night program immerses students in science, technology, and math education, while giving them hands-on training, learning about the mental, emotional and physical demands astronauts, engineers and technologists face, according to its website.
"I'm really excited about going," Kiera said. "Especially the zero gravity tank, I've always wanted to do that."
The United States Advanced Space Academy is a college-accredited program offered through the University of Alabama-Huntsville, and students receive one hour of freshman level general science credit upon completion.
"You're not just sitting in a classroom hearing about it, you're on the floor, in spacecraft simulators, experiencing zero gravity," Hickam said. "They run through real space missions, like voyages to the moon or Mars, where they are given problems they must solve."
Now an author, Hickam's works include his famous memoir Rocket Boys, later adapted into the film October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
Eager to move forward, the twins couldn't be happier with the opportunity, which could serve as a prelude to college, and eventual careers. They both credit their eighth-grade robotics teacher with sparking their interest in science, technology and math courses.
"I like to program and build robots, it's challenging and you have to build them a certain way," Kiera said. "I'd like to be careful with the science I do, always remember to follow directions, and be aware of peer pressure."
Their mother, Marie, will be joining the girls in Huntsville, taking the time to relax and reflect while her daughters explore the many facets of the program.
At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon at the Vision Center of Word Alive Ministries in Lakeland, Fla., the Wilmot family and their attorney, Larry D. Hardaway, took questions from the media and remained hopeful that Kiera will be reinstated at Bartow High School.
"The way people have reached out, I wasn't expecting this kind of response," Marie said. "It is a blessing."
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