"Suddenly, there was a thundering roar with massive vibration... as the solid rockets ignited, the hold-down bolts exploded, and we were driven off the launch pad and upwards into the sky. You did not need a window to know what was happening."
Andy Thomas, recounting his launch to Space Shuttle MIR, 1998.
Like many young children, Andy Thomas was fascinated by space. He made model aeroplanes and rockets, and as an early teen, was captivated by the ‘space race’. But it wasn’t until he studied engineering at the University of Adelaide that his dream of space travel began to unfold. His education encouraged him to view the world for its possibilities and helped him to become Australia’s first NASA astronaut.
Dr Andrew Thomas, or Andy as he prefers, graduated from the University in 1973 with First Class Honours in Mechanical Engineering. He went on to complete a PhD in this field, which empowered him to take his first steps toward a professional career in space.
"When I left the University of Adelaide over 30 years ago, I carried a dream… I was able to turn that dream into a realistic ambition which ultimately took me to space, I owe that largely to the education that I received at this institution," Andy says.
In 1992 Andy was selected by NASA, and within a year, appointed a member of the astronaut corps. It was in June 1995 that the long awaited call came – Andy was named payload commander for Space Shuttle Flight 77 (STS-77).
As many proud Australians can recall, Andy took his first flight into space on 19 May 1996 aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. It took just eight and a half minutes to reach orbit, and as Andy flew over Adelaide he was touched by the support of his home town.
“The city all pulled together with this common goal, at the right time of night to turn the lights on so that the city would stand out. That was a really nice moment,” Andy says.
Andy went on to make three subsequent trips, totalling 177 days in space, including a space walk and an extended stay on the Russian MIR Space Station. It was on this mission that he was able to savour the experience - having time to float by the window and enjoy the view of the world turning under him.
His first hand knowledge of space has since been applied to other projects requiring innovative engineering. This includes the development of vehicle and transportation systems that will return humans to the moon. An advocate for future space travel, Andy believes that as members of the solar system we need to understand our place in it – how we came to be and if there are other possibilities for life out there.
Over the years, Andy has maintained a close association with the University of Adelaide. While on the MIR Space Station, he asked NASA to work with our Waite campus to provide the videoconferencing link to his parents. He has also been a source of inspiration for our students, and last year opened our final year mechanical engineering student exhibition, MechExpo.
Andy's achievements in space and here on earth as an engineer, a scientist and an astronaut have had a profound impact on all Australians. He has helped us to understand that there are no limits to what we can achieve. For Andy, following his dreams undoubtedly led to the ride of his life.
Through our teaching, our graduates, and groundbreaking research, the University of Adelaide positively impacts life around the world.