Andy Thomas: Celebrating a local hero
When Andy Thomas first graduated from the University of Adelaide 50 years ago, travelling into space as an astronaut was an impossible dream. Australians didn’t do that – space was for people from other countries.
Fast forward 23 years and he was being strapped into his seat in the space shuttle Endeavour, preparing for lift off and his first “job” in Earth orbit.
During his career as a NASA astronaut, Andy completed four space flights, spending a total of 177 days, nine hours and 14 minutes in space – including 20 weeks on the Russian Mir Space Station. That time on Mir gave him the rare distinction of being both an astronaut, and a cosmonaut.
In 2001 he was on board the shuttle Discovery when it docked with the International Space Station (ISS). During this mission, he completed a 6.5-hour spacewalk to install components on the exterior of the station.
Andy’s final space flight was in July and August of 2005, when the Discovery returned to the ISS.
It was NASA’s first space flight following the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
Doctor Andrew Sydney Withiel Thomas, AO, was born on 18 December 1951.
He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Adelaide, graduating in 1973 with Honours. In 1978 he was awarded his PhD – also from the University of Adelaide – and he became an Honorary Doctor of the University (honoris causa) in 2006.
After graduation, Andy embarked on a career in aerodynamics research at Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company in Georgia (USA), becoming manager of its Flight Sciences Division at the age of 35.
This was a prestigious career in its own right, and a time he looks back on fondly. “But I always had this nagging feeling that there had to be something more for me,” he says. “That’s what led me to pursue the goal of becoming an astronaut. I knew it would be better to try and fail than to never try at all.”
Realising that his health, education, physical attributes and work experience fulfilled NASA’s astronaut criteria, he applied for the astronaut program. He had taken on US citizenship some years earlier, so he sent off his application “with the full expectation that I would not succeed”.
Following an extensive interview process, NASA called in March 1992 to ask if he was still interested, and told him he had been accepted as an astronaut candidate.
“I remember putting the phone down and thinking, wow, my life has just changed in an unbelievable way,” he says.
At the age of 40 he started NASA’s rigorous 12 months of training, including up to 40 bouts of ‘weightlessness’ a day, to become a fully-fledged member of the astronaut corps.
In May 1996 he was appointed payload commander in the six-person crew of the space shuttle Endeavour on a 10-day mission.
It was the first time an Australian had been in space as a NASA astronaut (although Australian-born Paul Scully-Power, an American oceanographer, flew in Challenger from 5–13 October 1984, as a civilian payload specialist).
Andy retired from NASA in 2014. His contribution to the University of Adelaide, however, continues. Not only is he an honoured alum, he is also deeply involved in the Andy Thomas Centre for Space Resources.
This centre brings together the University of Adelaide’s collective exploration, mining, manufacturing and engineering research strengths to address the challenges faced by long-term planetary exploration, while ensuring near-term applications here on Earth.
“We are truly proud of our very distinguished graduate, Doctor Andy Thomas,” University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Høj says.
“We celebrate all of his many accomplishments of the past, and his important ongoing contributions to our University. “On behalf of our entire community, I congratulate him on all he has achieved, and thank him for all he has done, and continues to do, for us.”
Story by Mark Douglas, Editor of Lumen, and Corporate Communications Coordinator for the University of Adelaide.