Former NASA astronaut Don Thomas has been to space four times. In an interview with Science Editor Andy van den Bent-Kelly, he talks about his experiences, the political scene away from Earth, and what the future holds for the space industry
Stepping into the lift of the Crowne Plaza hotel, I breathe nervously as the doors of my launch vessel close behind me. T-minus 10 seconds. Buttons are pressed, commands are relayed back and forth. Then, with a jolt, I begin to shoot upwards. We have lift off.
It’s fair to say that the person I’m interviewing has enjoyed significantly more exciting launches than the one I’ve just experienced. A former NASA astronaut, Don Thomas is a veteran of four Space Shuttle missions. He’s orbited our planet almost 700 times, clocking up over 1,000 hours in space in the process.
Although his space-faring days are now behind him, Don still acts as an ambassador for the Kennedy Space Center. He’s visiting the UK as part of a large outreach programme, which has seen him speak to primary school pupils in Manchester, visit the National Space Centre at Leicester and even make a half-time appearance at a Fulham game.
Trying not to let my awe get the better of me, I shake the hand of a man who has lived the dream of every young child who has stared out of the bedroom window at night. As an astrophysics student, I’ve spent the past four years trying to understand what’s going on in space. Don, however, has gone one step further and has been up there to find out for himself.
As is the case for so many young children, Don was fascinated by space growing up and he kicks off the interview by fondly recalling the inspiration moment that set the wheels of his ultimate career path in motion.
“May 5th 1961,” he states, “when we launched the first American into space.”
The American in question was Alan Shepard, who flew around the Earth for 15 minutes in his Freedom 7 spacecraft, just a few weeks after Yuri Gagarin first ventured into outer space.
“At my elementary school, somebody brought us all to the gym,” Don explains. “I sat on the floor and watched the launch of Alan Shepard. As soon as I saw the launch I just said to myself, ‘I want to do that.’”
That feeling never deserted Don. As soon as the opportunity to pursue his childhood dream arose, he jumped at the chance. “The first time I applied I was just out of university, I’d just got my PhD,” he tells me. “I stayed in school and got my masters and doctorate because I knew it would make me more competitive in the selection process.”
Having graduated, Don experienced something that is all too real for students today – rejection. Astronaut vacancies at NASA are exceedingly rare, with selection processes only occurring every two or three years. Fresh out of university, Don sent in his first application, and was turned down. The same thing happened two years later.
“I was getting frustrated but I looked into the backgrounds of who they were selecting and there were clues there for me,” he says. “I noticed that taking flying lessons seemed to help, skydiving seemed to help, teaching a university course, so I did all those things.”
With a vast array of suitable skills and achievements under his belt, Don sent in his third application. “I made the group of 100 semi-finalists, got interviewed and went through all the medical tests,” he says. A short while later, Don received a phone call from NASA. Heartbreakingly, it was to inform him that again, he hadn’t made it.
Still undeterred, Don moved to Houston to be closer to the action. He started working as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center, NASA’s main training, research and mission control facility. After a few years, NASA again invited people to apply for astronaut training.
Don smiles as he tells me about his fourth application. Having gone through the same procedures, tests and interviews as before, Don again received a phone call. This one, however, was to inform him that he’d been selected.
“I finally made it in!” he exclaims. “I was 35 years old when I finally made it into the program, in 1990.”
The following four years were spent training extensively for an eventual trip to space. “You spend a lot of time in the simulator,” Don tells me. “You’ve got to know where every switch is, what every switch does inside the shuttle. You’ve got to go through all the procedures step-by-step, know how to do everything, from powering something on to changing fuel tanks.”
Although Don spent a vast amount of time studying, there was also a significant practical element to his training.
“You spend time underwater, training for spacewalks and spacesuits. You go in other simulators learning to use the robotic arm on the shuttle. Some days we would fly in jets practising high g turns, trying to get used to having more force on your body.
“Every single day training was something different, unique and really challenging and exciting. You almost couldn’t believe you were getting paid to do this job!”
All the training was finally vindicated when Don was selected for his first mission. In July 1994, Space Shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center, with Don on board as a mission specialist. Fast forward to the summer of 1997 and Don had been up into space a further three times.
Much of his time in the Space Shuttle was spent conducting experiments. Three of his four voyages were dedicated science flights, in which the team studied what impacts the effects of microgravity had on various processes. A two-week mission would often see as many as 200 experiments conducted within the confines of the shuttle. The results, Don says, were extraordinary.
“We did combustion experiments, looking at how fire burns in zero gravity, where you don’t have convective forces. Hot air doesn’t rise in space, cold air doesn’t settle down, so instead of a flame being drawn up to a point like we’re so used to seeing on a candle, a flame will burn perfectly round, in a perfect ball.
“It will consume all the oxygen around itself and then self-extinguish, because there’s no drafting effect getting fresh oxygen there.”
Don was joined on some of his flights by a non-human crew. “We did experiments on plants and animals, looking at how different plants grow, how small animals like goldfish and guppies and fruit flies, how they adapt and grow in zero gravity. As a scientist, it was an incredible environment to work in.”
As far away as it may appear, reaching space doesn’t actually take very long at all. Each time he departed Earth, only eight and a half minutes elapsed before Don was able to look back at the planet from the realms of outer space. I ask him about how his first glance back at the Earth affected him personally.
“Looking back at the Earth changes the perspective of every astronaut,” he says. “You see the Earth, you see how thin the atmosphere is—it’s paper-thin.
“On a sunny day here on Earth, that blue sky looks like it goes on forever and ever, but from space you literally see it as a paper-thin layer protecting us and you realise it isn’t infinite. We have to take better care of our planet here.”
Don then tells me that his outlook was changed in far more than just a natural sense. “I come back to Earth and I realise, we’re all Earthlings. From space, you can’t see any borders or boundaries. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, or what religion, or culture—we’re all the same on planet Earth.
“I used to tell people I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, that’s where I grew up. Now I tell people I’m from Earth when they ask me where I’m from. We’re all from Earth, it doesn’t matter what city or country. We’re more similar than different.”
The conversation takes a slightly sombre turn as I mention one of the most devastating tragedies to befall NASA. On February 1st 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia was returning from her 28th mission, with seven crew members on board. Damage sustained during the launch just over two weeks beforehand allowed atmospheric gases to penetrate the wing structure, resulting in the complete destruction of the shuttle as it flew over the United States.
For Don, the disaster was particularly distressing.
“I lost seven great friends that day,” he says. “Four of the seven worked with me in the astronaut office so I knew them very well. And you just think about their families, their kids.
“It’s part of the business, you’re always taking this risk, but it’s not easy to lose coworkers and good friends like that.”
The loss of life was of course the most devastating aspect of the disaster, but for Don, the loss of the shuttle itself was upsetting too.
“Space Shuttle Columbia was everyone’s sentimental favourite,” he says. “It was the first one ever launched, my first launch was on Columbia, three of my four missions were on board it. So I had a strong personal attachment to it.
“I thought Columbia would end up in the Air and Space Museum in Washington one day, I couldn’t wait to go down and see that. So when we lost the vehicle in 2003, it was sad and devastating on a number of levels.
“I went down to the Kennedy Space Center, where they were reconstructing Columbia from the debris, trying to find out what caused it all. I went into the hangar and saw thousands of pieces of it. I noticed an aluminium window frame from one of the big windows on the shuttle. The glass had been shattered and blown out and I just looked at that window and I thought of the hundreds of hours that I’d floated in front of that window, looking out at the Earth. It was sad to see that.”
Don’s fourth spaceflight was ultimately his last. Originally chosen to travel to the International Space Station as part of Expedition 6, he sadly had to withdraw for medical reasons. Prior to that, he spent a year in Russia, overseeing NASA’s operations in Star City.
“Life is a little harder in Russia than in the suburbs, where I lived in Houston,” he laughs, “but it was so rewarding culturally to live there.
“I lived in a cosmonaut dormitory housing area, right next door to where Yuri Gagarin had lived—his wife and daughters were still living there.”
Star City is located a few miles outside of Moscow and has been the home of Russia’s cosmonaut training facilities for decades. “I used to bump into cosmonauts all the time,” Don tells me. “I met [Andriyan] Nikolayev, one of the early Vostok astronauts, there.”
Although Star City was originally a secret facility, the Russian space program has become a lot more accommodating and inclusive since the Soviet era and the compound now frequently houses foreign astronauts. Now that the Space Shuttle program has ended, this collaboration between the United States and Russia is more important than ever. I ask Don about how dependent the space program is on global cooperation.
“Just look up at the International Space Station,” he says. “It’s been inhabited for nearly 16 years, I think 15 different countries have contributed to it. That cooperation is the only thing that keeps the space station going up there.
“We rely on one another, we rely on the Russians to send our astronauts up there, they rely on us to send up supplies. It is just a vital component. If we don’t cooperate, that space station falls down.
“Even though we have a lot of political friction between the United States and Russia right now, and with some other countries, the cooperation in space is truly impressive right now. It doesn’t matter that we don’t agree on war or whatever else, in space we put that all aside and we work together.”
The political scene up in space is a stark contrast to down on Earth. Despite conflicts, differing opinions and breakdowns in political relations, the International Space Station continues to endure, 250 miles above our heads. It’s my personal belief that the ISS is humanity’s greatest achievement—not just from a technical sense (assembling something in space is no mean feat, after all) but from a geopolitical one. Don agrees.
“We talk about the engineering achievement, the scientific achievement, but to get so many countries with such diverse cultures working together for one goal and sending up astronauts from all these countries together, that’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.”
From the outside, you could be forgiven for saying that NASA isn’t currently enjoying a heyday. During the nineties, when Don was flying, the agency had well over 100 astronauts on the books. These days, the figure is less than 40. Couple that with the fact that the days of the Space Shuttle are over and it’s easy to assume that NASA is on a downward trajectory. “Nothing could be further from the truth!” Don assures me.
He excitedly outlines NASA’s ambitions for the coming years. It’s clear that his passion for the space program hasn’t wavered as he enthuses about the forthcoming Space Launch System, America’s next generation of rockets. He’s even wearing a rocket-themed tie.
“These rockets will allow us to go to the Moon, onto asteroids, to land on Mars. The first test launch of one of these will be in 2018, unmanned. It’ll loop around the Moon and in 2021, we’ll send crews.”
“It’s happening today at the Kennedy Space Center, they’re already modifying the launch pads. At 39B where I launched from on my second mission, they’re configuring it for the Space Launch System. At 39A, where the first Columbia mission launched from and where Apollo 11 launched from, SpaceX has reconfigured it for commercial trips up to the space station.”
His brief mention of SpaceX leads me to ask his opinion on the increasing role of the private sector in the space industry.
“When I first heard, I was a little suspicious,” he admits. “I didn’t want to have economics being the decision maker when it came to deciding whether to launch or not; safety should always be number one.”
Recent developments, however, have changed his opinion. “I’ve been so impressed with Elon Musk and SpaceX, what he’s been able to pull off. I was down at the Kennedy Space Center in December, when they landed the first rocket stage back there at Cape Canaveral after the launch.
“To see that thing come down and to hear the sonic boom a few minutes later when it landed, I said, “I’m watching history here.” They’re going to do a great job.
“In 2017 they’ll start launching our crews up to the International Space Station, so we won’t have to rely on the Russians and pay them $65 million a seat! Commercial space companies are doing a great job, they’ll open up space for tourism as well.”
Seemingly pre-empting all of my questions, I quiz Don on the impending arrival of space tourism.
“We’re right on the verge of it,” he states. “Virgin Galactic would have been launching already but they had an accident about a year and a half ago which set them back. Soon they’ll start launching tourists up into space, 85 miles up, for a two-hour trip. They’ll get five minutes of zero gravity time, see the curvature of the Earth, the black sky, thin atmosphere. The more people that can get up there and see the Earth, the better off the whole planet is.
“Elon Musk with SpaceX, they won’t be far behind. A decade from now you’ll look back and space tourists will be going up frequently. Right now it’s about $65 million to go up with the Russians to the space station. Richard Branson is going to bring it down to $250,000 and I would guess within a decade or two, it will be down at around $10-20,000 per person.”
The conversation takes another dive into the realm of politics. With the Obama administration now coming to a close, I ask Don whether the President has had a positive effect on NASA’s operations and ambitions. His frustration is palpable.
“When Obama first got elected, there was a lot of hope in the country,” Don explains, “and everyone within the NASA community was anticipating another John Kennedy moment. We thought something profound would happen, maybe a deadline for going to Mars would be set.
“But that just didn’t happen. There seemed to be very little interest in the space program at all. Not to take anything away from him, our President has been dealing with a recession, we had a horrible economy when he took over. So we haven’t had the money to spend on the space program like we had in the past.”
The current economic situation hasn’t been kind to NASA. Although their annual budget still dwarfs that of any other space agency, relative spending is small compared to previous eras.
“We spend a lot less money, maybe a tenth of the money today per year than we did during the peak of the Apollo program, so we can’t do as much,” Don says. “But within our national politics, space exploration in general seems to me to be on the backburner.
“The people love it, but it’s one of these things, it costs money to do, it takes political will, and it’s just kind of on the backburner right now, unfortunately.”
Resisting the urge to namedrop Donald Trump, I ask Don what any of the current Presidential candidates will be able to bring to NASA, if anything. His response is equally as despairing as the last one.
“You know, I hate to be cynical, but in my heart I don’t think it matters what candidate would be in there,” he explains. “Our Congress is so torn and cannot work together. It’s really hard to pass a budget for anything, let alone a vision of sending astronauts to Mars or to an asteroid.
“Our dysfunctional Congress right now makes it really difficult. So if a President came in and said, ‘I want to go to Mars,’ I can guarantee you that half of Congress would say no! And if a President came in and said, ‘I don’t want to go to Mars,’ then the other half of Congress would say, ‘We want to go to Mars!’
“I hope that we can get a President in with some vision, someone who can see the good of the space program, to see how our country and indeed the whole world benefits from it. Someone who can see how our space program excites and inspires young students. We need to have that space program, and hopefully some of the politicians can see that it’s not just for the benefit of landing something on the Moon, but for the whole inspiration and prestige that comes along with the program as well. We’ve kind of lost that.”
Inspiration and prestige are two words that define NASA’s illustrious history gloriously and in Don’s eyes, it is his duty to ensure that he is able to pass on that inspiration to the next generation.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I knew I wanted to go into space. I know that power now, the power of inspiration. I know how powerful that is.”
Don officially retired from NASA in 2007. These days, he’s heavily involved in public outreach and frequently visits schools and universities across the globe. He no longer launches from the Kennedy Space Center, but instead maintains an extensive presence in their visitor complex.
“I go down there four or five times a year for a week or so at a time,” he tells me. “I love talking with the public, I love meeting young children, sharing that excitement, sharing the passion. The fact that I can go out there and help inspire and excite the young kids, it’s really valuable to me. I get a lot out of that.
“I know I can’t make it to Mars, but my feeling is that maybe I can help that next generation, to excite them. We need this next generation ready to go, to undertake these missions.”
There are several disciplines which fascinate almost all young children—space is one of them. Don emphasises the need to nurture and maintain this interest right from the onset.
“We need to keep them on the path, urge them to study maths and science,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Hey, this isn’t easy. What you’re doing right now is not easy. But it’ll pay off for you in the future. If your generation wants to go to Mars, we need you to be those scientists and engineers.
“Kids have that passion, you see the excitement. Seeing the interest that young kids have, it makes you feel like our future’s in good hands. For us to keep that interest going to get that excitement building, that’s what it’s all about.”
I conclude the interview by referring back to the space community’s next major goal—landing on Mars. Colonisation of the Red Planet is looking increasingly more likely, with many agencies, both public and private, aiming to send human crews there.
“People ask, ‘Why do you want to land on Mars and send crews there, we already have rovers.’ Well, we had landers on the Moon before we sent Neil Armstrong there. But when we put those human astronauts on the surface, it changed everything. They could describe their feelings—what they saw, what they felt—something that no robot could do.
“It changes it totally, it makes it a human experience. Having a picture of Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon next to the lander, people see that and go ‘Wow!’ It just has that strong emotional impact.
“We’re humans, we explore. That’s what sets us apart from everything else.”
I leave the hotel with a wide smile across my face, partly due to the NASA goodie bag that I’ve been given. In it is a signed photo of Don, complete with the words: “Keep your eyes on the stars!” I have my eyes on the stars every day as part of my degree, but if Don can keep convincing youngsters to follow suit, then who knows where in the Universe humanity might be casting glances next.
Don acts as an ambassador for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, helping to raise global awareness of the center’s dedication to making space accessible to everyone. To coincide with Tim Peake’s stay on the International Space Station, the complex is hoping to attract more visitors from the United Kingdom. This year, the visitor complex has more on offer than ever before. Visitors can see Space Shuttle Atlantis, take part in the interactive live action game Cosmic Quest, see the iconic countdown clock that marked the launch of so many missions, and much more. To find out more information, visit their website.