‘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 a passion for discovery and helped him take steps towards to becoming South 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, 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’, said Andy.
In 1992 Andy was selected by NASA, and within a year, appointed as a member of the astronaut corps. It was in June 1995 that the long awaited call came and 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 his home town Adelaide, he was touched by the support. Andy recalls ‘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 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 the Waite campus to provide the videoconference link to his parents. He has also been a source of inspiration for our students. In 2011 Andy opened MechExpo, an exhibition of the University’s final year mechanical engineering students’ work.
Andy's achievements in space and on earth as an engineer, a scientist and an astronaut have had a profound effect. The example he has set demonstrates that there are no limits to what can be achieved. For Andy, following his dreams and daring to discover undoubtedly led to the ride of his life.
Andy Thomas in the space