NASA Hosts Its First Naturalization Ceremony
Think about those instances that take your breath away or bring a tear to your eye . . . singing the national anthem as F-15s soar overhead . . . watching the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery . . . or feeling a space shuttle rumble into orbit from your own backyard.
Those tug-at-your-heartstrings kind of moments washed over the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on July 1 as 110 people from 36 countries took the Oath of Allegiance to become full-fledged American citizens.
As they prepared for their graduation-type ceremony, Margaret Iglesias, the Orlando Field Office director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, asked the applicants a few questions.
"Anyone excited?" The group erupted in cheers and applause as they waved their American flags in the air.
"Anyone want to change their mind?" Everyone shouted "No!"
For some, the road to becoming an American citizen has been a lengthy one. George William Dunne, a priest at St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Winter Springs, Fla., came to the United States from Ireland in 2001, and wasted no time submitting the paperwork and going through the interview process.
"It happened that I applied after 9/11, which changed everything, of course," Dunne said. "What might have been a shorter process became a very lengthy process."
Dunne said a few members of his congregation work at the space center and that it is such an honor to be among the first group of applicants to be naturalized at a NASA facility.
"It's a very emotional moment to be doing it here of all places," Dunne said. "For an Irish-American to do it in a place named after John F. Kennedy . . . the greatest Irish-American, for us anyway . . . I'm very, very happy that it's happened here. It's a historic day and it's always good to be a part of history."
In a place that is as American as the bald eagle, where the historic Redstone, Atlas and Titan rockets stand tall, Kennedy's Director of Education and External Relations Cheryl Hurst welcomed the applicants to the spaceport.
"Candidates, you've lived in the United States, but today you'll become full partners in the family that is America . . . and we at the Kennedy Space Center welcome you," Hurst said.
The Transportation and Security Administration Honor Guard posted the American, Homeland Security and NASA flags, and then 10-year-old Searra Weeks, a fifth-grade student at Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School in Merritt Island, Fla., sang the national anthem. The applicants stood, put their right hand over their heart and sang along.
Next, Kennedy Center Director Bob Cabana took to the podium to offer some words of encouragement.
"You know, those of us who were born in the United States, we take a lot for granted . . . and sometimes we don't appreciate the rights and privileges we have in this country," Cabana said. "All of you . . . you had a choice, you weren't born here. You chose to live here and that's special. You recognize that this truly is the greatest nation on our planet.
You know, this is a nation where a small farm boy from Minnesota, the grandson of Norwegian immigrants, can end up flying in space. Dreams come true in this nation if you work hard and apply yourself."
Before all the applicants received their papers, certifying them as American citizens, all-star players from the North Merritt Island Little League led them in the Pledge of Allegiance.
"So, what's more American than that, right? Rockets, baseball, if we only had apple pie," said Kathy Redman, the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services' Tampa District.
Jamaican-born Mikenna Jumpp, a member of the Army Reserve, and three other members of the military, received special recognition for defending a country they now can officially call home.
As Jumpp's father found her in the crowd, he gave her a kiss on the forehead, told her he was proud and said he had tears in his eyes when her name was called.
"I'm proud to be a citizen," Jumpp said. "I've been living the citizen life for as long as I've been here, but I'm proud to have it on paper now."
Jeff Hartigan, who was born in Vancouver, Canada, brought along his wife, Stacey, and two daughters, 2-year-old Hadlyn and 2-month-old Hensley.
"To be among the shuttles and rockets was pretty cool, and to be able to sit there next to a Saturn (rocket) so close to the Fourth of July . . . it was very patriotic," Hartigan said. "It gives you chills, certainly as a newcomer to the country."
Hartigan said his wife and children were born in the U.S. and that after nine years it is "nice to be a part of the club."
"That's why we brought them today . . . because they are a part of this whole thing," Hartigan said. "One day we can pull out the pictures and look back at this day and I can tell them a story about how dad wasn't originally born in this country, but is now a part of it."
President Barack Obama also sent along a recorded message: "It's an honor and a privilege to call you a fellow citizen of the United States of America. This is now officially your country, your home to protect, to defend and to serve through active and engaged citizenship.
"You can help write the next great chapter in our American story . . . and together, we can keep the beacon that is America burning bright for all the world to see."
About 3,800 applicants will become citizens at 55 special ceremonies held across the country and around the world July 1-6. Next up for those who began their new journey at Kennedy, is to create their own All-American, fill-your-heart-with-pride kind of moments.
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center