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Andy Thomas

'When I grow up I want to be an astronaut'

An interview with Australian astronaut, Dr. Andy Thomas, who describes the experience of space travel.

Interview with Andy Thomas
Video: 3 minutes

The National Portrait Gallery would like to thank Dr Andy Thomas for his kind assistance with this project.

All photographs attributed to National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA. Curator: Kim Dismukes Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty

Andy Thomas: Well, I think the seeds of the idea were actually planted when the early human space flights were starting, followed by the lunar landing, which was a terrifically exciting event at the end of the 1960’s, and I think all of those sort of things really inspired me and captured my imagination. I just wrote a letter to NASA kind of out of the blue, and asked them to send me the application form. I got a call from one of the secretaries in the astronaut selection office, and they said to me, “Well, if you’re still interested, we’d like to invite you to come down here and start astronaut candidate training.” I just couldn’t believe it. Suddenly it was real.

And then on the morning of … there’s a knock at the door. They give you the suit that you need to put on. You put that on. At the right time you walk out the door, ride down the lift, the same lift the Apollo astronauts took to go to the moon. There’s a crowd outside, usually waving, and usually you walk back a little bit, and step back and look at the shuttle on the launchpad, because to see a shuttle that’s fully fuelled on the launchpad is truly an awesome sight. And one by one you crawl through the hatch, and a technician helps you get comfortable, straps you in, helps you get the helmet on, get your gloves on. And then after final checks they close the hatch, and when that happens you know that things are getting very serious.

About six seconds before lift-off the engines are started. Just all of a sudden there’s just a tremendous explosion, and a huge flash of light, and an enormous roar, and a vibration that’s just teeth-shattering stuff. As the solar rocket boosters are ignited, ground around you is bathed in this orange light, and you just feel yourself thundering skyward. Any clouds that are there just rush by the window. You can see the coastline recede into view as you climb upwards. And about two minutes into the flight you’ll be burning fuel at a rate of 12 tons a second.

And then there’s another big flash around the outside of the vehicle, and the solar rocket boosters are gone. And you feel the acceleration diminish. You are nearly 100,000 feet up in the air already. You’re so high in the atmosphere you see out the window these flashes of brilliant colour, of greens and reds. That’s plasma bursting around the window.

And eight and a half minutes after you’ve left the launchpad you are in orbit, and you are travelling at 30,000 kilometres an hour. And suddenly the engines shut down, and it just becomes quiet. All that acceleration that you felt has gone away, and you see any loose items like straps or anything, they just sort of suddenly just lift up and float around, and you’re in zero gravity. And you’ve arrived.

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