Adelaide-born Andy Thomas has spent 177 days, 9 hours and 14 minutes in space. He spoke to Marc Fennell about the journey from SA to NASA and his time in orbit.
When I was in primary school I remember vividly coming home from school and seeing on the news this amazing story about a guy from Adelaide having gone to space for the first time. So on behalf of twelve year old me, can I just say - that was mind-blowing.
Thankyou for pointing out how many years it’s been! And, it was mind-blowing. When you think about spaceflight, Adelaide isn’t the place that springs to mind. It’s an improbable career from anyone, let alone a boy from Adelaide, but it shows what you can do if you have a dream and have the tenacity to pursue it.
When you were sitting on that spaceship, the countdown was going, what went through your head?
The first time I flew, I did actually think a lot about my background. Lying strapped to 500 tonnes of explosives is a very introspective time. I thought about the path that led from growing up in Adelaide to being strapped in there. I thought; what an extraordinary set of circumstances.
By the time of my fourth flight, my thoughts were a little more prosaic. I lay there after about two hours zipped up tightly in the pressure suit, thinking that I really shouldn’t have had that second cup of coffee.
You’ve done four trips –how does your body change in space?
Being at zero gravity is a very strange sensation. The blood that normally flows down into your legs and is held down by gravity comes up into your head. You end up with this puffy, full face – it takes a while for the body to adapt. Being at zero gravity, being weightless - It’s about the unnatural thing you can possibly do. And yet after you’ve been in zero gravity for a few hours, and you’ve learned to push off to move across the cabin, you actually start to feel that it’s a very natural environment to be in, that you’ve been in it all your life. But of course you haven’t.
Of course the downside is you pay a price for it when you come back. You feel this tremendous mass on you as all your internal organs are pulled down. The first time you stand up and move your head things spin: it’s a very strange sensation.
We take gravity very much for granted. For example, you’re always losing things. You can’t put anything down, because if you do it’ll float away. If you put a pen down it’ll float behind a vent and you’ll never see it again. It was so frustrating.
There’s probably still an Andy Thomas pen up in space somewhere that nobody’s ever going to find... You’ll not the only astronaut in your family - your wife is an astronaut as well, and you anticipate she will go back. How do you deal with that separation?
I think the fact that we’ve both been through the same training and we’ve both experienced spaceflight makes it easier for one partner to understand what the other is going through. Space now isn’t such as isolationist event as it used to be. In the space station she flew on there was a phone. You just dial a local Houston number and it rings.
What are the long distance rates like on that?
We didn’t ask.
In space there are so many things that can go wrong – was there ever a moment where you said, this is the end: I’m going to explode.
It’s never been that bad. We did have one incident on the Mir Space Station. We had a fire in one of the air handlers, and a fire is one of the worst things you can have on a spacecraft -in a confined space you can’t open a window to let the smoke out. We had a huge smoke buildup inside the cabin, which was pretty serious. It took a long time to clear it out.
But in space you always plan for contingencies. We always had a capsule docked at the space station, so if something went horribly wrong we could get in that, leave and we could actually be back on the ground in a couple of hours.
Really? It moves that fast?
Yep. You de-orbit, you land, and you’re done.
The longest of your stints was in the Russian space station, right?
Yes, twenty weeks.
How’s your Russian?
It was better then than it is now…
In my head it’s just you going, ‘nyet, nyet, nyet’.
Yep, a lot of ‘nyet’. My two crew makes didn’t speak English so we had to speak Russian.
It still amazes me that the Cold War drove so much technological progress, and then suddenly you’re up there, an American on this Russian space station. There must have been this moment recognising of how far we’d come.
I commented a lot on that when I got back. It seemed extraordinary that we’d started the space program purely out of competition to beat the Russians, and there I was representing the same agency, NASA, flying with Russians on a Russian spacecraft, working collaboratively. I was glad to be able to do that.
When you’re up there looking down on earth, it must give you a slightly philosophical view of human life.
It does, especially when you see, from a global perspective, the damage being done to the planet. They say the only human created thing you can see from space is the Great Wall of China. That’s a myth. You can’t actually see it. But you can see deforestation, and it’s absolutely staggering. You can see plumes of smoke travelling around the entire planet from this incredible destruction that is taking place. Flying in space gives you a good sense that this is one planet and we’ve got to take care of it. We’re not doing such a good job with it.