When you go to Las Vegas for the world’s largest technology event, you don’t expect to bump into an Astronaut AND have them available for an interview.
Donald Thomas is a former NASA Astronaut who flew four space shuttle missions and spent over 1,000 hours in space. After 20 years working at NASA, Don is now retired and fortunately had some time to talk to us. Below is our word for word interview with a man who has traveled out of this world.
EFTM: As a child and while growing up we all wanted to be astronauts, how did you ensure you stayed on that path and how difficult was it to get to that point?
Don: I first dreamed of becoming an astronaut when I was six years. I watched the launch of the first American into space on May 5, 1961 on a small B&W TV in my school gymnasium and immediately I was hooked. It took me a long time and a lot of hard work to finally accomplish my goal though. What made it easier for me growing up was the exciting pace of exploration. I watched John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. A few years later in 1965 Ed White became the first American to do a spacewalk which was pretty exciting. In 1968 the crew of Apollo 8 became the first humans to leave Earth and orbit the moon. Then on July 20, 1969 I watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon. With each of these exciting accomplishments I became more and more convinced that I wanted to join the Astronaut Corps one day. I really wanted to walk on the moon one day and be able to look back at Planet Earth and see it as a blue ball suspended in the blackness of space. So I was constantly motivated by this dream as a young boy, and having astronauts from my home state of Ohio like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong as role models, made it seem possible that I could do something like this as well. And as I got older and finished college I started believing that I had a real shot of becoming an astronaut one day so I kept pushing forward. I was finally selected to be an astronaut in 1990 and first flew in space in 1994 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia, 33 years after first dreaming of going into space.
EFTM: Training and preparing for space flight must require some form of regime, what physical or mental training was required and how did you prepare nutritionally?
Don: The astronaut training in preparation for my first flight was pretty intense. There was just so much to learn and you couldn’t afford to forget things. So just dealing with the sheer amount of information was one of the biggest challenges. I trained full time for four years before my first mission, some of it in classrooms, some in simulators, some in the NASA T-38 jets, and some underwater practicing to do spacewalks. Every day it was something different and every day it was a blast!
The physical training NASA left up to the astronauts. We had to pass a strict physical exam each year and if you didn’t pass, you wouldn’t fly in space. So that was a giant carrot to motivate everyone to work out and stay healthy. But there was no mandatory exercise program. We each did our own thing. NASA provided an astronaut gym with weights and racket ball and basketball courts and a swimming pool where we could swim laps. Many of the astronauts were avid runners even in the tough heat of a Houston summer. I enjoyed swimming as my main form of exercise.
I had learned to meditate when I was in my early 30s and this was a tremendous help for me in dealing with some of the stress and anxiety of preparing for spaceflight.
Nutrition for most astronauts was a bit of an afterthought. While I knew a few astronauts that were very strict about their diets (fat-free, sugar-free, vegetarian, etc) most tried their best to eat a healthy diet with frequent diversions eating pizza or junk food out of vending machines. With the busy training schedules we had and with all the travel we were required to do, it made eating healthy a bit of a challenge. But once again, we all knew if we didn’t pass that physical each year we wouldn’t get to fly in space. So I think most astronauts tried their best to eat a relatively healthy diet.
EFTM: For your first space flight how did it feel to reach that milestone?
Don: When I made it to orbit on my first flight, after the Space Shuttle engines shut down, I was ecstatic. What an adrenaline rush the launch was! Only eight and a half minutes to get there knowing that you were riding on millions of pounds of highly explosive rocket fuel that could explode at any second. Each time I made it to orbit I was thrilled and thankful to have made the journey safely and arrived in one piece. And to know on my first mission that I had a achieved my lifelong dream of 33 years was extremely rewarding and I felt incredible pride in what I had accomplished.
EFTM: If you could describe the feeling of being in space, what is the closest earth experience like it?
Don: One of the experiences on Earth that most reminds me of being in space in floating in a swimming pool. Getting most of the weight off your body, being neutrally buoyant, you feel light and free as you float. The one difference is that when you push off the side of a pool you travel only 5-10 feet before the drag of the water slows you down. In space the smallest push off the wall of the shuttle will send you sailing effortlessly through the air until you reach out and stop yourself or hit the opposite wall.
EFTM: Looking towards the future of space travel, what are your thoughts on inhabiting Mars?
Don: I am really excited about the possibility of send astronauts to Mars in the next decade or two. With NASA’s new Space Launch System rockets, more powerful than the Saturn V moon rockets used to send Neil Armstrong to the moon back in 1969, we will soon have the capability to send astronauts to Mars and beyond. The initial missions will spend 1-2 years on the surface before returning home, but eventually we may build a permanent base on Mars. It’s a tough place to live, however. With average temperatures on Mars right around freezing, very little oxygen, and very little water, it will be a challenge to permanently inhabit Mars, but I am confident that we will do it and learn so much along the way. I think the experience of building a Mars base will be a good stepping stone for us to explore further out in space one day.
EFTM: Thinking about the concept of “joy rides” into space and back again, how do you see this going?
Don: If you are asking about the space tourist flights I am all in favor of these and I am confident that regular trips to space for tourists will begin here in just a few years. Our commercial space industry is moving quickly in this direction. I am not in favor of sending tourists to the International Space Station as the Russians have been doing over the years because they tend to get in the way and affect normal operations aboard the ISS. But building a commercial space station or other space destination would be exciting. I would like to see as many people as possible have the opportunity to see the beauty of Planet Earth from space. It changes the perspective of each and every astronaut who has had the experience and makes you realize how fragile our planet Earth is and emphasizes the need for all of us to take better care of our home planet. The more people that can experience this unique perspective from space, the better it will be for our planet and convincing others to take better care of Earth.
EFTM: Do you have any advice for the young kids out there still dreaming of being an astronaut?
Don: There are so many exciting missions planned in the future that may send astronauts to the moon, to visit asteroids, and on to Mars and beyond, and young students today are just as excited about space travel and exploration like I was 50 years ago. So the dreams and passions are still there to explore. I always recommend to young students to follow their dreams and to never give up along the way. I remind them that it will take a long time and require a lot of hard work along the way, but to achieve your dream in life, whatever that dream is, is such an amazing thing. I think it is something that all of us should shoot for in life. My message is always “Keep your eyes on the stars!” which means keep your eyes on your dream and stay focused on accomplishing it. I believe we can achieve just about anything we set our sights on with hard work, determination, and never giving up along the way.