A million times more beautiful from space

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Grocott’s Mail has an exclusive interview with NASA astronaut, Dr Don Thomas

Why are you, (Dr. Thomas) coming to South Africa, Grahamstown, Victoria Girls High, Nombulelo Secondary School?
This will be my fifth visit to South Africa, and I am coming to work with Living Maths to inspire and excite young learners to pursue careers in the maths, the sciences, and the engineering fields. I was inspired to be an astronaut when I was only six years old and I watched the launch of the first American to space back in 1961. Watching that launch on a small TV at my school forever changed my life and motivated me to work hard and always do my best in school. So I know the power of inspiration, and together with Living Maths, we are hoping to inspire the next generation of mathematicians, engineers, scientists, and explorers in South Africa.

How do you manage your fears when going into space?
I was always a little scared during each of my four Space Shuttle launches. I frequently tell people I was 10% scared and 90% excited. I think any astronaut who tells you they’re not scared are either stupid or crazy, because you should be a little scared sitting on top of a fully fueled rocket. But how best to manage that fear? For me, I was able to manage the fear by focusing on the incredible team of people who were responsible for getting the Space Shuttle ready to launch. During my seventeen years as an astronaut I visited many of the NASA facilities and met many of the people responsible for looking out for my safety. By seeing the unmatched dedication and professionalism exhibited by this team, it gave be confidence that we had made it as safe as possible.

To what extent were your missions adventure, science or patriotic (showing the world what the US can do)?
I think that all of my missions were combinations of adventure, scientific pursuit, and a bit of patriotism. BY nature, I have always been an explorer and loved the idea of visiting places and seeing things that no other human might have seen or experienced. I think you need to be a bit of an explorer in order to take the risk of launching into space. Three of my four missions were dedicated science flights that involved performing hundreds of experiments, all looking into the effects of zero-gravity. Being a professional scientist, this aspect of the mission was particularly interesting for me. And growing up during the 1960’s and watching the great Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, I took great pride in wearing the American flag on the left shoulder of my spacesuit and seeing it along the side of the Space Shuttles. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with numerous astronauts from many different countries during my career at NASA, but I always had great pride in the space accomplishments of the United States, from landing on the moon nearly 50 years ago to the building and flying of the highly successful Space Shuttles.

What was the most surprising thing about being in space?
I think the most surprising thing for me about being in space was the beauty of the Earth. During training in preparation for my first flight, I studied pictures of the Earth taken from space and saw numerous large screen IMAX movies that showed amazing scenes of the Earth taken from space. I thought I pretty mush knew what to expect when I would look back at my home planet with my own eyes from space. But I was totally wrong. When I first looked out the windows of Space Shuttle Columbia, just a few minutes after successfully making it to orbit on July 8, 1994, and I saw our planet with my own eyes, I gasped at the beauty below. The sky in space was a much darker black color than I had ever seen before, and meeting up with this blackness was a bright blue paper thin layer surrounding our planet. I was looking at out atmosphere. It was an incredibly powerful moment and a view that I wish everyone on Planet Earth could experience for themselves. The pictures we take of Earth from space just don’t do it justice! It is a million times more beautiful when seen with your own eyes from space.

You did four missions – at what point did it become old hat? I’ve done this before.
For me launching on the Space Shuttle never became old hat. Although I knew more of what to expect of the experience after my first launch, all four were all equally thrilling and exciting. It’s something about sitting in my seat inside the Shuttle and being only a few meters from two million liters of explosive rocket fuel that never let it become routine. I never took it for granted that we would successfully make it to space each time. I knew the risks involved, and they were present for every launch.

Are you a science evangelist? Why should South Africans become scientists? Astrophysicists? Astronauts? 
I am not sure if I would use the term science evangelist to describe myself, but I am definitely a science enthusiast and have always enjoyed learning all I could in the sciences. I studies physics at university because I found it powerful for explaining the universe around me. I enjoy learning new things and discovering things that were once unknown. I think it is one of those characteristics that make humans unique among all other species… humans explore. And I firmly believe it to be a human trait, not just an American one. For me it doesn’t matter what continent you live on, what language you speak, or what religion you practice, humans explore. We cross oceans, we climb mountains, we travel to space and explore the unknown.

Is there value in doing science (such as astrophysics) that has no material benefit to society?
Some of the science we do has immediate benefits here on Earth, such as much of the medical research that we perform. But there is much that we do and much that we learn that has no immediate benefits. It can seem a bit useless to discover a new supernova exploding in a far away galaxy, millions of light years from Earth. But everything we learn in all the sciences builds a foundation for things that we are yet to learn in the future. Einstein’s postulating about gravity waves had no immediate benefit but the day may come when we learn to harness these waves and do new things with them that are currently unthinkable. So in my opinion, everything that we learn in the sciences will benefit us in the future, even if it has no obvious material benefit to society today.

  • Steven Lang conducted this interview.
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Azlan Makalima, a Grocotts Mail Online Producer and a Head-Director at Multimedia Makenik, a Small Medium Micro Enterprise on Event Management, Graphic, Audio and Visual Design.

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