Former NASA former NASA astronaut Dr Don Thomas will be returning to South Africa, for the Living Maths Space Tour 2018, from 16 to 27 September.
This comes after a successful three-city tour last year.
We were lucky to interview the astronaut weeks before the tour begins in Capetown.
What inspired you to want to become an astronaut?
I always liked the idea of exploring and going places that nobody has been to before and to see things that no human eye has ever seen before. When I was only six years old I watched the first American astronaut launch into space at my school. From that moment on I was hooked.
I too wanted to travel into space, orbit the Earth, and possibly land on the moon or on Mars one day.
When I was in high school Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the moon. Watching that first moonwalk in 1969 and the others that followed only reinforced my strong desire to become an astronaut myself.
I really wanted to go to the moon and see the Earth as a small blue ball floating in the blackness and void of space.
How would you advise a young person in South Africa who is interested in also becoming an astronaut?
Work hard every day and always do your best in all subjects. And never give up along the way.
From dreaming of being an astronaut when I was six years old, I finally launched into space for the first time when I was then 39.
It took a long time and a lot of hard work and determination, but in the end, it was all worth it.
Education wise what should they focus on if they wanted to become an astronaut?
Our first astronauts selected by NASA were mainly military test pilots, but for the past 40 years or so NASA also has selected a lot of science astronauts called Mission Specialist Astronauts.
They come from a wide range of backgrounds including astronomy, oceanography, engineering, physics, and maths.
They included veterinarians and medical doctors as well.
Besides having a strong technical background with advanced degrees in the maths, sciences, engineering, and the medical field, strong communication, and teamwork skills are vitally important.
On TV being an astronaut is made up to be about going to the moon, what does a day as an astronaut really entail?
I was an astronaut for 17 years, and of that time I was only in space for 44 days. The vast majority of the time an astronaut is on Earth training for his or her missions.
We spend many hours in spacecraft simulators practising all the procedures we will need to accomplish the mission, plus learning and practising what to do if something breaks or goes wrong in space.
We train underwater for performing spacewalks. We fly in special aeroplanes capable of creating 30-second periods of zero-gravity. We fly in jet aircraft. We also spend many hours in classrooms (like our learners do today) learning all the systems of the spacecraft.
But with all of that I have to say, it was the greatest job I could ever imagine. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do this job.
What is your favourite moment from your career?
My all-time favourite moment has to be my first launch to space that took place on July 8, 1994. After four years of training, it was time to head to space.
About three hours before launch I strapped into my seat aboard Space Shuttle Columbia.
I was laying on my back on top of a lumpy parachute, and while not very comfortable, it didn’t matter to me one bit.
It felt just like being in the simulators back at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and I had to remind myself a few times that this was not a simulator but the real thing and I was about to launch to space.
Six seconds before lift-off our three main engines ignited and came up to full power. Then right at the moment of lift-off, our two large and powerful Solid Rocket Boosters ignited and we were on our way. Laying on my back firmly strapped to my seat, I could hear the roar of the engines and feel the shaking and vibration as the engines came up to full power.
The lift-off felt as if someone had their hand in the middle of my back and was pushing me directly upward.
For the first few seconds, I was screaming inside my helmet “YAAAAAAAHOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”.
Eight and a half minutes later the engines shut down right on schedule. It became eerily quiet. I unstrapped my seatbelt and floated out of my seat. I had made it to space!
Would you have done anything differently in your career if you could any regrets?
No. It took a lot of hard work, dedication, and time for me to accomplish my dream in life, but it was absolutely worth it.
If I had the opportunity to go back in time and re-live my life, I would do it all the same.
The one thing I wish I could have done would have been to fly to the moon and see it up close and look back at the Earth from that distance to view it as a “blue ball floating in the blackness of space”.
But when we were landing our astronauts on the moon between 1969-1972, I was still in high school, too young to be a part of those missions.
Today NASA is building a new generation of rockets called the Space Launch System.
These will be the biggest, most powerful rockets ever launched and will have the capability to send astronauts to the moon and on to Mars.
But I am afraid I am too old now to be a part of these upcoming flights.
We will have to leave these missions for our next generation of explorers, some of which are our young learners in school today, dreaming of their trips to space much as I did when I was their age.
If you want to meet Dr Thomas tickets can be purchased through Quicket, for R60 to R80.
Dates and Venues for the tour are as follows:
16 Sep – Kirstenhof Primary
17 Sep – Bridge House
20 Sep – York High
21 Sep – Knysna Primary
25 Sep – Piesang Valley Community Hall
25 Sep – Victoria Park High School
26 Sep – Victoria Girls High