Former astronaut Donald Thomas reflects on his lifelong love of space

Thomas to speak at Hudson library Feb. 19

by Dorothy markulis | reporter Published:

When he was just 6 years old Donald A. Thomas decided he wanted to be an astronaut.

"I grew up in Independence, 11 miles south of Cleveland, and while I was in kindergarten they brought us to the gym on May 5, 1961 and we watched the launch of the first American heading to space," Thomas said. "I was hooked and knew then and there what I wanted to do in my life."

The next year the students were all taken to the gym to watch Ohio astronaut John Glenn's first launch.

"After the launch we went back to our classroom where I spent the rest of the morning looking out the window to see if I could catch a glimpse of John Glenn's Friendship Seven capsule as it passed overhead, but unfortunately I never did," Thomas recalled.

Thomas will be coming to the Hudson Library and Historical Society Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. to speak about his life with NASA and his new book, "Orbit of Discovery."

A 1973 graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, Thomas earned a bachelor of science degree in physics from Case Western Reserve University in 1977, and a master of science degree and a doctorate in materials science from Cornell University in 1980 and 1982, respectively.

"I never gave up on my dream in life and, finally, when I was 35 years old I was selected by NASA to be an astronaut," the Thomas said. "Four years later in 1994 I launched on my first mission aboard Space Shuttle Columbia on the STS-65 mission."

"Orbit of Discovery" is about Thomas' second mission in 1995. The mission that is now known as the "woodpecker shuttle flight" and also as the "The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission."

A week before the scheduled launch of Space Shuttle Discovery in 1995 (the STS-70 mission) one woodpecker made 205 holes in the soft foam insulation covering the huge external fuel tank of the shuttle.

After repairs, the mission was nicknamed "The Woodpecker Shuttle Flight." It also was known as "The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission" since four of the five crew members for that flight were from Ohio. George Voinovich, then governor of Ohio, issued a proclamation making the fifth crew member an honorary Ohioan.

He would go on to make two more space flights in 1997.

"The first time I viewed the Earth from space was maybe 15 to 20 minutes after we launched. I unstrapped from my seat and floated to the window where I got my first glimpse of the Earth," Thomas said.

"We were already over Africa and I gasped out loud at the beauty. The sky was pitch black, a darker color than I had ever seen before. It appeared to me like it was glowing black, as if a black fluorescent light.

"Another first impression was how thin our atmosphere is on Earth. On a bright sunny day in Cleveland the sky would appear to go on and on forever, but from space I saw it as a thin sliver surrounding our planet.

"It made me appreciate how fragile the Earth is and made me realize that we need to take better care of our planet."

Thomas said although he saw many pictures from space before his first mission, he wasn't prepared for its beauty.

"'My God, how beautiful,' I gasped. Mine was not a unique experience. During the course of my astronaut career, I flew with five rookie astronauts on my subsequent missions and the reactions were almost universal  --  first a sudden gasp and then some form of exclamation  -- 'Wow!' or 'Oh my god!' or 'How beautiful,'" he recalled.

Thomas retired from NASA in 2007 and is an associate professor at Towson University in Maryland. He said he is looking forward to visiting Ohio where he still has family and friends.

"I have many great memories of growing up in Ohio, from visiting Geauga Lake Park, Euclid Beach and Cedar Point," Thomas said. "I loved the Metro Park system around Cleveland and all the beautiful state parks where I used to go camping at. I spent a lot of time at Hinckley Park as a kid swimming.

"I think Ohio has the best pizza in the world and still firmly believe that absolutely everything tastes better with some Stadium Mustard on it. I left Cleveland nearly 37 years ago but still root for the Browns and Indians. Some things never change," he said.

Register online for this free program at the library Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. at hudsonlibrary.org or call 330-653-6658, extension 1010.

Email: dmarkulis@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9436

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