Rocketman in our orbit

Adelaide’s own astronaut Andy Thomas is returning to his home town for September’s International Astronautical Congress at the Adelaide Convention Centre to let local would-be space explorers know that the sky is no limit to their dreams of trading terra firma for the cosmos.

countdown

“When you go out to launch on the shuttle, you’re usually strapped in lying there on your back for a couple of hours. You can hear the communication between the launch director and the launch team checking if the fuel is topped up in the tanks and all the systems are activated. And about five minutes before you launch you get a call to say to close your suit and start your oxygen flow. And this is when things start to get serious. At this point idle chatter stops.”

Andrew Thomas, from Adelaide, South Australia, finally realised his dream of becoming a NASA astronaut aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1998, when he became the first Australian to orbit planet Earth.

It was the first of four flights in an incredible career that would eventually mean spending a total of 177 days in space, including 20 weeks aboard the Russian MIR space station. Now retired, the 65-year-old sits at home in Seabrook, southeast of Houston, Texas, often looking at his old photos and movies in disbelief. “It was a dream come true,” he says. “And now it’s all a memory and I have to pinch myself that I was actually able to do it and make it a reality.”

six seconds to go

“You hear the countdown proceed. At about six seconds before the launch the main engines of the shuttle start and you can feel this tremendous surge in power as they roar to life. I actually had a window seat and I had a mirror and could look down to the launch pad behind me. I could see the flash and the exhaust fumes of the engines. They run for six seconds while you’re bolted firmly to the ground … If the engines are running properly at the zero mark, the solid rocket boosters ignite. At that point there is a tremendous explosion and a flash around the base of the shuttle as the solid rocket boosters roar to life.”

Thomas’s dream started when he was a teenager living in Adelaide. It was a time when the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon created an unmatched hype around the world. He studied engineering at Adelaide University where he received an education that unlocked the doors needed to build and follow his dream. He realised he had the credentials to become an astronaut in his early 30s and made strategic career decisions, moving to California to support space operations for NASA. But, until the day he joined the astronaut program in 1992, not even his parents, Elizabeth and Adrian, were aware of their son’s ambitious goals. “I thought people would just laugh at me,” he says. “I was not confident that it was going to work out after all. The odds were certainly against me as they are for anyone applying for the position. So I kept it as a very private dream.”

blast off

“Everything just starts vibrating. It’s just mind-blowing vibration. Everything shakes and rattles. As you push skywards you see the launch tower rush by the window. If there’s any clouds, you see them rush by the window. You’re pushed back into the seat from this tremendous vibration. At about two minutes into the flight, the sky has turned from purple to almost black. It’s very dark. You’re very high. The solid rocket booster is explosively being released, which is when you see the big bright flash around the forebody of the shuttle and then you just ride the main engines. It’s a very smooth ride from that point on. The vibration largely goes away.”

It was a case of “now or never” when Thomas applied for the astronaut program. He was in his late 30s and knew he would soon be too old to apply. He was told “don’t call us, we call you” after his interview with NASA. An excruciating four months of waiting followed. But Thomas knew things were in his favour. Not knowing what was going on, friends in California phoned him after an FBI agent turned up on their doorsteps asking questions. They asked whether Thomas had committed any crimes but the agent also let it slip the object of their inquiries was being considered for the astronaut program. “That was the first hint that things were in my favour,” Thomas says.

He finally received a phone call from NASA telling him his application was successful. The voice at the other end was “deadpan, bureaucratic”. So, Thomas accepted quietly. That night he sat at home alone and had a glass of champagne. “I knew at that moment my life had changed in a big and very unpredictable way,” he says.

Three days later, the news was released to the media and Thomas was finally able to give away his long-held secret. He called his parents in Adelaide and told them the news. Their response was a sober “Oh, that’s nice”. “A little while later, they called back and said ‘Let’s just understand what you said. Did you say that you’re going to become an astronaut?’ Thomas recalls. “Yes, that’s right,” he replied.

OFF THE PLANET

“It gets quiet because there is no atmosphere to carry the sound. The engines run very smoothly. You can feel yourself being pushed harder and harder into the seat. The sky goes completely dark. As you leave the upper atmosphere, travelling at hypersonic speed, you see flashes of plasma around the windows and electric sparks, and you can hear the speed increases being called out — thousands of miles an hour increases every few minutes.”

For a man who has been off this planet, Thomas is surprisingly grounded. The Adelaide University Engineering Society’s annual publication, Hysteresis, describes a 21-year-old Thomas as hiding “his massive intellect behind a screen of silence and hair”.

Thomas says he is an introvert whose qualities tend towards hard work and tenacity. He says he had ambitions but was not ambitious. “Ambitious sounds more like you seek fame and fortune and that’s not my case,” he says. “I had the ambition to do something that was personally inspiring to me. I had the drive and the tenacity to see it through and bring that dream to reality.

“It was a very distant dream. What are the chances for someone from Adelaide to join NASA. Well, they weren’t very good but I didn’t give up. But I thought I was a lot better applying and not making it work then never, ever applying. I didn’t want to reach the age that I am now and look back and say with regret ‘If only I had applied’.”

dream is realised

“Eight-and-a-half minutes into the flight, the external tank separates and the engines shut down and it gets very quiet. Everything seems to stop. Any loose objects around the cabin float around you. You are in orbit. You’re travelling at 30,000km/h and you’re about 300 odd km above the earth. You’ve arrived and it is the ride of your life.”

Thomas may have left NASA but his mission is far from over. He is supporting his wife and fellow astronaut, Shannon Walker, who is preparing for her next space flight. And he wants to show young Australian scientists and engineers that, with quality education, the sky is no limit.

“It doesn’t matter what your dream is. Just follow it,” Thomas says. “I’m living proof that the sky is not necessarily the limit.”


Out of this world

68th International Astronautical Congress
Adelaide Convention Centre September 25-29

Thousands of scientists, including astronauts, are gearing up for next month’s space conference in Adelaide.

The 68th International Astronautical Congress has been hailed as a major coup for the South Australian capital. Adelaide astronaut and congress attendee Andy Thomas says the conference puts the city on everyone’s star chart. “It puts Adelaide on the map in the aerospace community as a city with cosmopolitan and international values,” he says.

“It means that those people in Adelaide who work in the space industry will now come from a position of some credibility when they travel internationally and try and establish business partners.”

The International Astronautical Congress, to be held from 25-29 September, at venues including the Adelaide Convention Centre, is expected to attract 3000 delegates from about 60 organisations, including private companies, universities and research centres. The event will inject about $25 million into the state’s economy. Thomas says Adelaide was able to win the bid to host the congress because it is an “attractive venue”.

“With the Riverbank redevelopment and having the large convention centre, Adelaide is now in a position to host a conference of this scale,” he says. For more info, log on to iac2017.org