‘YAAAAAHOOOOOO’... veteran astronaut recalls his first moments in space
News / 14 September 2019, 4:30pm / Tanya Waterworth
Durban - A space veteran of 692 space orbits of Earth, former Nasa astronaut Dr Don Thomas, will be in Durban next week as part of global celebrations around the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.
Hoping to inspire the “Mars generation”, Thomas who arrived in the country this week for the 2019 Living Maths Space Tour, said: “I'm confident that the first astronauts to Mars might be among the learners today.”
For the man whose first launch took place in July 1994, going into space for the first time was the most unforgettable moment in his life.
“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 lying 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 Centre 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 into 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. Lying 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. Feeling this push, I knew I was finally on my way to space. After dreaming of being an astronaut for nearly 33 years, it was now my turn and I was on my way. For the first few seconds I was screaming inside my helmet ‘YAAAAAHOOOOOO’.
“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.”
And seeing our world “from a distance”, Thomas said that although he had seen many pictures of Earth taken from space, “the most surprising thing for me about being in space was the beauty of the Earth.
“I thought I pretty much 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 of the window, I gasped at the beauty below.
“The sky in space was a much darker black colour 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 our atmosphere. It was an incredibly powerful moment and a view that I wish everyone from 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. It is a powerful and life-changing event to see Earth from above.”
In the half-century since man first landed on the moon, Thomas highlighted that there had been so many successful missions, including “all the Mars rovers and landers, New Horizons journey to Pluto and beyond, Osiris Rex, the Hubble, the James Ellis telescope and the next generation rockets called the Space Launch System”.
He added that with regard to returning to the moon, a programme called Artemis includes eight launches and a mini-station in lunar orbit by 2024.
He said Nasa was building bigger and better rockets with commercial partners, as well as reusable, 3D printed vertical rockets and boosters. This along with massive projects such as SKA going online and the commercial space travel industry expanding, Thomas predicted “this will be one of the fastest-growing industries in the world”.
But it was Mars which Thomas said was set to be the next major step into space.
“We could realistically see the first humans on Mars in the next 20 to 30 years. Nasa’s focus is to send astronauts to Mars and bring them back safely… I am confident that the first astronauts to Mars might be among the learners today.”
He said that Nasa did not support one-way missions or immediate settlement.
He said living on Mars would be difficult. It has a largely carbon dioxide atmosphere, extreme weather temperatures and temperatures well below zero. Nasa has set up sites around the world where scientists experience extreme conditions.
“The complexity is further compounded when you realise how far away Mars is and how difficult it would be to return to Earth in an emergency. We are hoping to identify all the major issues that future astronauts could face on Mars. You can never over prepare.”
That includes issues such as living in isolation, growing food, creating oxygen from water on Mars, generating power and dealing with emergencies.
He said Earth was considered a “Goldilocks planet” in that it is the perfect distance from the sun. “We have found a few planets that fit this description, but they are too far away to explore them.”
He said that with the rapid pace of technological change, the rarity of being an astronaut and working aboard an orbiting shuttle was set to change, while any space mission “is not about one or two astronauts. There are thousands of people behind every mission”.
Thomas was in Cape Town this week and will be in Johannesburg on Monday (University of Pretoria) and Tuesday (Sakhikamva Foundation STREAM Lab, Lanseria Airport) and Roedean Senior School.
He will deliver his talk in Durban on Friday at St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls. Tickets cost between R50 and R100. For more information, go to www.livingmaths.co,/living-maths-space-tour/.