By Justin Golec
Humans will make the voyage and land on Mars within 30 years, according to a former NASA astronaut who spoke at Towson University Saturday morning.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 60 people at Towson’s Smith Hall, Dr. Don Thomas detailed his career as an astronaut and his experiences while traveling and living in space.
Thomas, who is the president of the Willard Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science at Towson University, predicted that it would take nearly three years to a complete a mission to Mars, with two years spent on the surface of the planet and one year spent traveling over 100 million miles to and from the red planet.
Much of his presentation was about his own personal path to becoming an astronaut.
Thomas said that he was in kindergarten when the first American was launched into space. Since then, all he dreamed about was being an astronaut. He recalled watching the Project Mercury launch in 1959 as the moment that inspired him.
“We all gathered into the gymnasium and sat on the floor and watched a small black and white TV that day,” Thomas said. “As soon as the launch was over, I said to myself, ‘I want to do that.’”
From that moment on, Thomas said, he worked his entire life with the goal of being hired by NASA. However, Thomas said he began to doubt that his dream would come true after he was turned down three consecutive times.
“At that point, I thought my grandmother and I had the same chance of being selected for NASA… zero,” Thomas said.
Thomas was finally accepted on his fourth try in 1990 at the age of 35. After a week-long interview process in Houston and background checks that involved the FBI calling nearly every neighbor he ever had, Thomas was hired by NASA to go into space.
Thomas said he had to undergo four years of training before actually taking his first trip into space. The night before his first mission, a then 39-year-old Thomas stood outside his shuttle and took a picture, one he shared with his Towson audience with great emotion.
“As I stood there gazing up at the Columbia, I had incredible butterflies in my stomach,” Thomas said. “I almost couldn’t believe where I was and what I was about to do.”
On July 8, 1994, Thomas traveled into space for the first time. Moving at speeds near 18,000 mph, it took only eight minutes for his shuttle to leave the atmosphere.
Once in space, Thomas performed multiple experiments with his fellow crewmates. On one mission, he said he was in charge of a study that involved salamanders laying eggs and recording how the eggs developed in zero gravity.
Living in space, Thomas said, was completely different from what one can expect on Earth. Inside the shuttle, the slightest of pushes can send an astronaut flying from one side of the ship to the other. But for Thomas, the strangest sensation came from determining the ideas of “up” and “down.”
“In space, there is no up or down,” Thomas said. “Wherever your head is pointed, your brain says that direction is up for you. Wherever your feet are pointed, that’s down. You never feel like you’re upside-down. It’s everybody else in the room.”
Thomas said space food is all freeze-dried, requiring an injection of water through a needle to become edible. Due to the absence of gravity, all meals come in a foil pouch with a small fabric fastener to secure it to the front of one’s uniform. While it may not be expected, the selection of available food is quite vast, ranging from spaghetti to hamburgers.
Outside of staying nourished, Thomas said exercise and sleep are the two most important things while traveling in space. During each day of a mission, he said, astronauts are required to ride a stationary bike for 45 minutes to keep their muscles active.
Sleeping in space is also crucial, but not easily accomplished, he said. Astronauts have to float into a sleeping bag that is strapped down to the base of the shuttle. After zipping themselves in, Thomas said, they have to wear protective eye-wear due to the constant sunlight creeping in from the nearby shuttle windows.
Thomas said he has flown on four space shuttle missions, traveling the length of the Earth 692 times and amassing nearly 20 million miles.
Thomas had one message for those looking to follow in his footsteps.
“The key,” he said, “is to never give up.”