Star-Struck: Former astronaut talks about life in space

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Star-Struck: Former astronaut talks about life in space

Former NASA astronaut Donald Thomas on following a 34-year-old dream, exploring the "black, black sky" that is outer space and being in the "business of inspiration" today


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Fri 8 May 2015, 5:02 PM

Last updated: Sun 26 Jul 2015, 3:48 PM

"What do you do after you're an astronaut?" asks former NASA engineer Donald Thomas. "What kind of job can you take up once you've done that?"
A veteran of four space missions, the American spaceman has a point. After logging a total of 1,040 hours in space and holding the record for the most number of flights in the shortest amount of time - all four of Donald's trips to space occurred between 1994-97 (a phenomenon he puts down to "being lucky") - there are few things the 59-year-old could do to top that. But the space explorer always had his sights set on the future - which is why he is investing his time on the 'next generation' these days. Donald says he visits about 70 schools a year now, speaking to kids and encouraging them to reach for the stars - quite literally - because, as he quips, "We're in the business of inspiration now."
wknd. caught up with the space hero, during his visit to schools in the UAE, organised by Compass International Tours. Excerpts from the interview:
You were an astronaut for 17 years. Was that always &the dream?
I wanted to be an astronaut since I was about five years old. When I was in kindergarten, the first American was launched into space. My school brought all the kids into the gym to watch the launch on little black and white TVs. I saw the rocket go up and I remember thinking: I want to do that. I had no idea what they were doing or how to get there, but it became my dream.
The next year, John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. He was from Ohio, my home state, so he too was a hero of mine. Then, a few years later, Neil Armstrong - also from Ohio! - became the first man on the moon. I had all these great heroes, which is why I know the power of inspiration - all of them inspired me as a little boy.
Most people don't end up becoming the fireman-policeman-superman they dreamt of being when they were five. What kept you focused on your goal?
I don't think I ever got distracted. It was an overriding dream. After I saw Neil making history on TV that night, I went outside to look at the moon. I couldn't believe there were people up there at that moment! It was powerful.
A few years later, NASA launched its first space station called Skylab. They started selecting 'science astronauts' [for research and academic purposes] and I decided that's the kind of astronaut I would be. I figured my [career] path early on and never gave up the dream.

LIFEONBOARD: (left to right) Organising utensils to enjoy ameal in zero gravityonthe Columbia; reviewing morning messages from MissionControl; recording scientific data during his final trip to space in 1997
Not even when you applied four times to the space shuttle programme before getting accepted in 1990?
I almost did give up during the first three rejections, actually. No one would have faulted me as a quitter either - I did try three times! The disappointment of those rejections was huge, too. The first time I got turned down, I was shocked because I thought they'd pick me like that (snaps fingers). The second time, I told myself this was no accident. They really didn't want me!
But something inside told me to keep trying. So, I started studying the backgrounds of the people who were being selected, looking for what else I could do to better my chances. In the meantime, I learnt to fly, to parachute and finally decided to move to Houston and work as an engineer, reviewing materials used in Space Shuttle payloads. I figured that would get me closer to them [NASA], make them more familiar with me and get me through the next time.
It worked. I got selected into the programme when I was 35 years old, did a four-year training programme and was 39 the first time I went up into space.
It took you about 34 years to realise your dream then. Do you think you'd have gone back if they hadn't accepted you the fourth time too?
I think I would have. My story is not unique. Most astronauts don't get in the first time. In fact, it can take more times than I tried. We, astronauts, joke that NASA will turn you down the first time just to see if you really want to do it. (Laughs.) It's not true but it really seems that way.
That's why I always say, let them turn you down - you just keep improving your background and try again. And that is good advice for any field. If you don't make it into medical school the first time, don't give up. Find out where you can improve, achieve that and try again. That's the greatest lesson I learnt.
Do you remember the first time you took off from earth?
I sure do. I was strapped into my seat, lying on my back. Six seconds before take off, the three engines powered up. We were still bolted down and everything was shaking noisily (though the computers could shut it all down at any second, if needed). Right at 'zero', I felt a lurch in my back, as though somebody was pushing me in the middle of my back with their hand, up into the sky. At that moment, there was no going back. The spacecraft couldn't be shut down. We were going!
I had my helmet on, visor down, and no one could hear me but I was screaming 'Yahoo!'. I was so excited because it was the dream of my life, unfolding right in front of my eyes. It was amazing. Eight-and-a-half minutes later, the engines shut down and I was in space. I'd made it. On that first mission, there were times I'd be looking out of the window at Earth with tears in my eyes because I just felt incredibly proud to have made it.
Was space everything you thought it would be? What were your first impressions of Earth?
It certainly was. To be able to see how beautiful Earth is from that perspective and to go around the planets was really worth all the hard work and time it took for me to get there.
When I looked out of the window, the sky was pitch black. I'd never seen a black sky like that; it was almost fluorescent black, with a sort of texture to it. Right against that black, black sky was the limb (edge) of Earth - and it was glowing fluorescent blue. It made me gasp to see how incredibly thin the atmosphere that's protecting us really is. Those were my first impressions of Earth. but it also really changed my perspective on things in general.
For instance, I used to say I'm from Ohio. Now I just say I'm from Earth - because up there, I could see no boundaries. It just struck me that we're all from the same planet and we all have to get along. You realise we have more in common, than differences. So I no longer see people as being from different cities or countries. We're all one.
What did you find most challenging about living on a spacecraft? And what did you miss about being on the ground?
It's very challenging up there because we had seven astronauts living in a small, confined area, the size of a kitchen. There's always somebody right there. Our toilet was the only place with any privacy. So, sometimes, when I wanted to get away from everybody, I'd go up to the window, put my face up against it, listen to music and create my own little world for a while. We didn't have the luxury of taking a walk outside by ourselves if we wanted a few minutes to think.
Another challenge was the amount of information we had to learn. We couldn't afford to make a mistake, or to forget something. Keeping all that information in your head was a huge challenge.
You miss your family for sure. My son was born between my first and second missions. I missed him and my wife, and couldn't wait to get back home. That's typically true for all astronauts. When the mission's over, nobody can wait to get home. People ask us if we'd rather live in space or on Earth. I think there's no question about it: Earth is where your friends and family are; it's where your favourite restaurants and all the other things you love are. That's where we want to be.
That's an interesting perspective, considering the number of people who've signed up of late for the one-way mission to Mars. They all claim to be perfectly okay with the idea of no return.
I think that's easy to say. But, for me at least, it doesn't seem real. Life on Mars is not sustainable right now. There's no food, oxygen or medicine there - and you can't send 50 years' worth of supplies to make up for it. There's ice, which you can get water and oxygen from. But it's a very difficult atmosphere. A warm day on Mars is freezing - and that's on a good day. Plus, you're exposed to a lot more radiation there because it doesn't have a magnetic field, like the Earth does, to protect you.
You can build a base and send people there, but you have to have a means to come back or send supplies on a regular basis because there's nothing there. I'd love to go to Mars but I don't know if I'd be willing to leave forever. That would be quite a commitment.
How did your family cope with the nature of your work?
My wife hated the launches. It's very scary for the spouses, and it's only when we make it safely to orbit that they breathe a sigh of relief. The big danger is the launch and we always believed that once we made it to orbit, we were safe. (This was before the one time we lost a shuttle [Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003] upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere).
My wife was very supportive though. She knew I wanted to do this and there was no question of talking me out of it.

About a week before Donald's STS-70 mission in 1995, a woodpecker made 205 holes in the soft foam insulation covering the huge external fuel tank of the shuttle. The mission was delayed for repairs-and dubbed "The Woodpecker Shuttle Flight" ever since
Were you able to communicate with your family during missions in any way?
My last flight was 18 years ago. Back then, I was only able to send one email a day (comprising a couple of sentences), and I could receive one email a day. She was also allowed to go into Mission Control once during the mission, to talk to me for about five minutes on the phone. Nowadays, on the space station, they can send unlimited emails and they have an Internet phone that allows them to call anyone in the world at any time - like the one time I went into the house to find my seven-year-old son chatting away coolly to an astronaut friend of mine up on the space station!
Many astronauts call home every night and it's so important to be able to stay connected like that. I remember how terribly detached I used to feel up there sometimes. We'd fly over Houston, 300 kms up. I could see my city there, where my family was. but I couldn't speak to them. Being able to stay connected goes a long way towards maintaining astronauts' psychological wellbeing.
Was there ever a point when the risk of these missions and the worry of making it back home again were a reality?
Every single launch, you're face-to-face with the risk and probability of something going wrong. We always had a one in 65 chance of not making it back home, and when you strap up that morning, you do so knowing that. It's a calculated risk that you take.
But there was one time I was really scared. We'd fired the engine and begun the descent back to Earth, when one of my crew members said he smelled smoke. That was really bad. If there was a fire, we wouldn't have been able to open the windows or jump out, and there was still an hour to go before we could land. To hear those three words - "I smell smoke" - was very scary. Nothing bad happened, thankfully, but for 15 seconds there, I was. seriously concerned, to put it mildly!
What message do you have for parents and educators about exposing kids to a wider array of career options and helping them follow the dream?
They say that, as parents and educators, our responsibility is to find the switch in every student, to flip it on and get them excited. When we were raising our son, I wanted to expose him to everything, get him to try a bit of everything, because you just don't know what's going to flip the switch. I think the role of teachers and parents is to provide the opportunities to inspire and excite kids - and to never tell them they can't do something.
I always tell students that if somebody tells them that - don't listen to them. Just keep working. It saddens me to hear parents yell at their kids and tell them they're stupid or that they can't do something - that's so damaging. &Nobody ever told me I couldn't become an astronaut or &that I was wasting my time. And look where that got me in the end.
We need this next generation to continue what we've started here and it's up to us to inspire them to get there. -

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