‘I could see flames forming’: Astronaut talks about life in space during Manchester visit

Don Thomas has flown in four space shuttle missions and orbited our planet almost 700 times.

These days he travels on planes instead of in rockets, talking to children all over the world about space, science and sometimes, bathroom etiquette.

Landing in Manchester for a few days, Don has been visiting schools as part of a world-wide tour to promote the Visitor Complex at Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre.

“It is universal, wherever I go, I get the same reaction and enthusiasm from kids,” Don told MM.

“I’ve been in South Korea, India, and Dubai and wherever I travel students are still so interested in space.

“It’s a magical world to them where everything floats up there – young students love the idea of exploration, that’s what kids are about.”

On his travels, the NASA veteran has noticed that space enthusiasts from across the globe seem to share at least one common query.

“The ‘how do you go to the bathroom’ always comes up, and not just with kids but adults too,” he admitted.

“The young kids will ask it straight away though – first question.

“Adults will hold back and wait a little longer but they always ask.”

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Don had dreamed of exploring space since being a boy.

“I got interested in being an astronaut when I was 6 years old and I watched the first American go into space – I said ‘I want to do that’,” he said.

“So I know how powerful inspiration is, it can change your life, it changed my life.”

Don was 35-years-old before he got the call from NASA in the early 90s, however, failing to be selected for the space programme several times before.

After a period of intense training and medical examinations, the former Cornell University student was ready for lift-off.

“My mom was thrilled, she knew I’d wanted to do this my whole life,” he said.

“From my first launch she was there, someone put a camera on her and it shows her watching it.

“She’s sitting in the stand and the expression on her face changes from excitement and cheering to the look of terror like she’s watching me get run over by a train.”

While the public has become reacquainted with the notion of space travel thanks to British astronaut Tim Peake, the majority of us wouldn’t really want to blast-off through the atmosphere.

So what makes someone actually strap themselves into a shuttle full of highly-explosive rocket fuel?

“I don’t attribute it to bravery, I’d say maybe you just have to be a little bit crazy, more of a risk taker or adventurer,” he said.

“Some people don’t want to sky dive, some people don’t want to scuba dive and some people don’t want to fly on aeroplanes because they don’t want to take the risk.

“There’s a one in 65 chance that the shuttle won’t come back to earth though, and you do think about that in the back of your head.”

After the father-of-one’s final mission in 1997, he’d travelled in excess of 17 million miles and became one of the first dozen astronauts to have clocked up over 1,000 hours aboard the shuttle.

“On my fourth mission coming back down I sat on the flight deck and as you re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, it looks like you’re in a furnace, it’s just glowing orange-red,” he said.

“Out of the overhead window I could see flames forming and they would grow to about 20 feet.

“You’re sitting in your seat looking four feet above your head and it’s 3,000 degrees up there but I felt secure in my space suit.

“My missions were before the Colombia accident so we never thought anything bad could happen on re-entry.

“We thought the biggest risk was getting up there, I never really had any fear once I was up there, I always thought we’d make it back home.”

The Columbia space shuttle disaster occurred in 2003 – all seven astronauts were killed when the shuttle disintegrated as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere.

After his final mission Don continued to work for NASA until 2007.

This included a stint working at the Star City cosmonaut training centre in 1999, located deep in Russian forestland.

Now working as a public ambassador for the Kennedy Space Centre, the veteran says that he gets his kicks from inspiring a new generation of space travellers.

He said: “The ultimate adrenaline rush to me would be to get a phone call from someone in 10 or 20 years from now and they say ‘I’ve just got back from Mars and you came to my school years ago and made me crazy about space’.”

Regarding our own astronaut Tim Peake, Don thinks the Brit will come back down to Earth with a new perspective.

“Two things hit you when you go to space and I bet this is true for 99% of astronauts,” he said.

“The first thing you notice is how fragile the earth is and how thin the atmosphere – it doesn’t go on for ever and ever.

“It’s a paper thin layer around the earth and when you’re 200 miles away it just looks like a little narrow band.

“You see the pollution and you see how we’re cutting and burning the rainforest.

“I saw smoke over the entire continent of South America back in 1994 – you see the impact of humans.

He also predicts that Tim, who has reached the halfway point of his six month mission, will feel more unified with his fellow man.

“Tim Peake will come back and he’ll say I’m an Earthling,” he said.

“He’ll still be a Brit but he’ll have the global perspective that we are all the same here on Earth.

“I used to tell people I was from Cleveland, Ohio but nowadays I tell people I’m from Earth.

“Yeah I’m from the United States but I’m from Earth and we’re all here on this one planet and we have to take better care of it.

“It doesn’t matter to me about your religion, citizenship, where you’re from, we’re all Earthlings here.”

For more information on the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex click here.

Image courtesy of the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex, with thanks.

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