Former astronaut Andy Thomas turned 70 years old today (December 18). Besides having a distinguished career with NASA, he has achieved much as an Australian in space. Even now, Thomas continues to champion the development of the space sector in our country.
Thomas grew up in Adelaide and was fascinated with space from a young age. He played with model rockets and watching Neil Armstrong take the first footsteps on the Moon made a lasting impression.
Completing a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Adelaide, Thomas quickly through himself into a PhD in fluid mechanics that he graduated from in 1978.
Thomas had an urge to see the world and, with a job at Lockheed Martin lined up, he set off for Georgia in the United States. He began as an aerodynamics researcher and over his ten years with the company he became the Flight Science Division manager.
In 1989, Thomas started a new position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and quickly became the lead on a NASA-sponsored project.
Being a US citizen and having the professional experience required, Thomas revisited his childhood dream and applied to become an astronaut. He knew he would regret it if he didn’t try.
Thomas was selected for the Astronaut Corps in March 1992 and began the one-year training program.
Though there were Australian astronauts before him, such as Philip K. Chapman and Paul Scully-Power, Thomas was the first Australian-born to be selected by NASA to be trained as one through the corps.
Chapman was a Melburnian and was chosen for the Apollo program in the 1960s but never flew.
Born in Sydney, Scully-Power was an oceanographer and went into orbit on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985. A large part of the mission was dedicated to Earth sciences and NASA picked him because of his expertise. He was also the first astronaut to have a beard.
Thomas’s first mission was STS-77 on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in May 1996. He was a payload commander and the mission included a SPACEHAB module that was used for microgravity experiments. Endeavour orbited for nearly 11 days before landing.
Next Thomas participated in the Shuttle–Mir program, a collaboration between American and Russian space agencies.
After training with Russian cosmonauts for a year, learning their language and completing winter survival training in the Siberian wilderness, Thomas spent 140 days on the space station Mir in 1998.
Just before transferring from the Space Shuttle Discovery to Mir, Thomas noticed his space suit didn’t fit properly. Though it would only be put on in emergencies and when returning to Earth, this was a problem. Astronaut David Wolf, who was leaving Mir, modified his suit for Thomas. Once across, Thomas was able to adjust his original one to fit.
In March 2001, Thomas was part of the crew on Discovery who visited the International Space Station. The shuttle spent nearly 13 days in orbit and the astronauts performed a series of spacewalks, including a 6.5 hour one by Thomas. They installed a platform on the station that could support the Canadarm, a robotic arm used for a variety of purposes.
While on the Discovery flight, Thomas had also taken a number of important Australian historical items with him, such as a piece of wood from the hut explorer Douglas Mawson built in Antarctica and a watch once owned by aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith.
When Thomas returned after the mission, he was promoted to the Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office in Houston, Texas. A position he would hold for the next few years.
Thomas went into space for the final time on Discovery in July 2005. The flight was the first time a space shuttle had launched since the Columbia disaster in 2003. Some of Columbia’s heat resistant tiles were hit by debris at take off and this weakened the outer layer that protected it during reentry. The shuttle disintegrated when returning to Earth as a result.
The mission was a success and Discovery was in space for nearly 14 days. Discovery tested new safety features and shuttle-system improvements.
Thomas retired from NASA in 2014, after 22 years with the organisation. He has stayed active in the time since and has been an advocate for the Australian space sector. In the last few years, he has formed the Andy Thomas Foundation and the University of Adelaide has named a space development centre in his honour. Thomas has also won many awards during his professional career.
Photo Credit: NASA (https://www.nasa.gov/missions/shuttle/f_athomas.html)
Andy Thomas: Adelaide’s Own Astronaut (https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/andy-thomas-adelaides-own-astronaut/)
Andy Thomas Centre for Space Resources (https://ecms.adelaide.edu.au/atcsr/about-andy-thomas)
Dr Andrew Thomas AO – Founding Patron (https://andythomas.foundation/)
NASA Mourns the Passing of Astronaut Philip K. Chapman (https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/nasa-mourns-the-passing-of-astronaut-philip-k-chapman/)
Paul Scully-Power (https://nasa.fandom.com/wiki/Paul_Scully-Power)