Following in Their Footsteps: A Conversation with NASA Astronaut Dr. Don Thomas

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Written by Paul Nash

Dr. Don Thomas started his professional career as a Senior Member of the Technical Staff at the Bell Laboratory’s Engineering Research Center in Princeton, NJ, working on materials issues in semiconductor devices.  From there he joined Lockheed Sciences and Engineering in Houston, Texas, as an engineer working on the Space Shuttle program. Selected as a mission specialist astronaut in NASA’s 13th group of astronauts in 1990, he is a veteran of four Space Shuttle missions, three aboard Columbia and one aboard Discovery.  He has spent 44 days in space completing nearly 700 orbits of the Earth and traveling 17.6 million miles in the process. From 2007 to 2015 he was the director of the Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science at Towson University, working to encourage and inspire young students to follow in his footsteps to become our next generation of scientists, engineers, astronauts, and explorers. Today he is a public speaker and continues his effort to inspire and excite young students to work hard and follow their dreams.

Dr. Thomas, you first got interested in becoming an astronaut when you were only six years old. Watching early astronauts like Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong blasting off into space made you want to follow in their footsteps. And then, 33 years later you did exactly that. How important do you think the space program is in inspiring new generations of American young people to study the critical STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines?

I think our space program today fills the same role of inspiring young students as it did 55 years ago when I was a young boy. I speak to tens of thousands of students across the country and around the world each year and I see the same sparkle in their eyes—the same excitement and enthusiasm for space exploration—that I had when I was their age.  So our space program is still a powerful force of inspiration for young students. Today’s students are fascinated with all forms of exploration, and with NASA’s vision now set on Mars, today’s young generation, which I refer to as “The Mars Generation”, will be the one to first set foot on Mars in another 20-30 years. The students in our classrooms today are our future scientists, engineers, astronauts, and explorers, and if we are to be successful in landing humans on Mars, we will need them to be well educated in the STEM fields when we pass along the torch of exploration to their generation.

From 2007 to 2015 you were the director of the Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science at Towson University, and today you are continuing your efforts to work with young students. From your experience, how difficult is it to encourage and inspire young students to follow in your footsteps?

Our young students today ‘get it’: that is, they understand that their generation will be the first to set foot on Mars, and I can see the excitement in their eyes as I talk to them about such missions.  As a young boy, I dreamed of going to the moon.  This next generation is dreaming of trips to asteroids and Mars.  By educating the students about some of the exciting missions we are planning for in the future using NASA’s next generation of launch vehicles (called the Space Launch System), which are being designed, tested, and built today, I have found it is easy to get them excited about space and hopefully inspired enough to work hard in school, especially on their STEM subjects.

What are your thoughts on the commercialization of space by companies like SpaceX? Do you thing this will have a positive influence over the long run?

I think NASA’s partnership with commercial space companies like SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and many others has been and will continue to be very positive for space exploration.  NASA’s plan to rely on these companies to ferry astronauts and supplies to and from the International Space Station is allowing them to do what NASA is best at: focusing on missions away from low Earth orbit and into deep space. NASA is currently busy building the Space Launch System rockets that will give us the capability to leave the Earth and travel to the moon, to asteroids, to Mars, and beyond. With the first test launch about two years away, these vehicles will allow astronauts to explore deep space beyond the moon as we have never been able to do in the past.  It’s an exciting time for NASA and our commercial space companies are valuable partners that will help us get there.

Do you think that greater international cooperation in space can help to improve international relations here on earth?

While the International Space Station (ISS) is one of the most massive and complex engineering projects that humans have ever attempted and accomplished, I think its lasting legacy will be its role in international cooperation and improving relations down here on planet Earth. Over 15 different countries from four continents have contributed to the ISS and continue to cooperate on a daily basis. Even though countries like the United States and Russia, which currently have what I would characterize as a tense or strained relationship politically, we still have strong commitments and cooperation in regards to the ISS. Currently onboard the ISS we have three Russians, two Americans, and one French astronaut all working together. Somehow it is a shame that we can cooperate so well in space but struggle at times to do so down here on Planet Earth. I believe that even more cooperation in space, such as for future missions to Mars, will only improve international relations here on Earth.