Astronaut Don Thomas—one of only four humans to have flown Shuttle Columbia as many as three times, joint record-holder for the shortest interval between two discrete space flights, and a member of 1995’s famous “All-Ohio Mission”—turns 60 today (Wednesday, 6 May). During his career, Thomas flew four times into space in just 36 months and, but for an unfortunate health issue, might also have journeyed to the International Space Station (ISS) as a member of Expedition 6. Additional misfortune came in the form of damage to the shuttle’s External Tank (ET), prior to his second flight, by pesky woodpeckers, which snatched away Thomas’ chance to be part of the United States’ 100th piloted space mission. However, he became one of the first dozen astronauts to have flown 1,000 hours aboard the shuttle and, in his later career, served as ISS Program Scientist.
Donald Alan Thomas was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on 6 May 1955, the son of William G. Thomas, Sr., and Irene M. Thomas. His interest in space exploration was piqued on 5 May 1961, the day before his sixth birthday, when a Mercury Redstone booster lofted the Freedom 7 capsule and America’s first man into space. “I watched Alan Shepard’s launch on TV at my school,” Thomas told AmericaSpace. “That was the moment when I decided I too wanted to be an astronaut. A year, later, when John Glenn orbited Earth, Thomas’ school desk was close to the window and he found himself gazing out at the sky, in the hope that he might see the Friendship 7 capsule flying overhead. After watching Neil Armstrong step on the Moon, I really wanted to have the opportunity to look back at the Earth from the Moon and to travel somewhere where very few people had set foot. I loved the idea of exploration. In high school, we launched Skylab and NASA started flying more science astronauts. I had a strong love for science and decided this would be my path.”
Thomas attended high school in his home state, then entered Case Western Reserve University to study physics, and earned his undergraduate degree in 1977. He subsequently gained a master’s credential and a doctorate in materials science from Cornell University in 1980 and 1982, respectively, with a research emphasis on the evaluation of crystalline defects and sample purity in the superconducting properties of niobium. With his PhD in hand, Thomas joined AT&T Bell Laboratories in Princeton, N.J., as a senior member of the technical staff, where he participated in the development of advanced materials and processes for high-density interconnections of semiconductors.
In 1987, he moved to Lockheed to review materials utilized in shuttle payloads and, a year later, joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, as a materials engineer. During this period, he worked on the projected lifetime of advanced composites under consideration for use aboard Space Station Freedom. He unsuccessfully applied for admission into NASA’s 12th group of astronauts in June 1987, before tendering an application for the following class in 1989. That same year he was honored with NASA’s Sustained Superior Performance Award, and in the fall he was invited for a week of interviews and physical and psychological assessments.
“Most of the week in Houston for the interview is spent on medical tests,” Thomas told AmericaSpace. “The interview itself was only 60 minutes. It was an exciting week and while a few of the tests were a bit uncomfortable, most were rather routine.” Of these tests, perhaps the most unpleasant was the near-unpronounceable “proctosigmoidoscopy”—a combined proctoscopy examination of the anal cavity, rectum, and sigmoid colon, and a sigmoidoscopy inspection of the intestines—and Thomas was not alone in his dislike of it. “I was so nervous right before my interview,” he remembered, “but once they called my name to come into the room, a peace settled over me and the interview went very well, I thought. It was a thrill for me to meet John Young and some of the shuttle astronauts that week. I felt honored and lucky to be participating.”
Shortly afterwards, he was in Mission Control working on the STS-32 shuttle mission—in his capacity as Principal Investigator of the Microgravity Disturbances Experiment—when he received news of his success. “I went home that afternoon, because my mom was in town visiting from her overseas assignment in Rangoon, Burma,” he recalled. His mother was then based at the U.S. Embassy in the South-East Asian nation. “When I got home, I noticed there was a message on my answering machine and when I listened to it, it was from Don Puddy, the head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate at JSC. I knew that if he called, that meant I had been selected. I looked over at my mom and told her, ‘I think I made it!’ I quickly called Don Puddy, who asked me if I was still interested in being an astronaut and offered me the job. I was yelling and screaming for 10 minutes, because I knew I had made it and was in line to fly in space.”
The formal announcement of Thomas’ selection as a member of the 23-strong Group 13 came on 17 January 1990. “The candidates were chosen from among 1,945 qualified applicants, 106 of whom received interviews and medical examinations between September and November 1989,” NASA reported. “They will report to the Johnson Space Center in July to begin a year of training and evaluation, after which they will receive technical assignments leading to selection for shuttle flight crews.” The group was notable in that it included Eileen Collins, the first woman ever selected as a shuttle pilot, and Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic female astronaut, who is today’s Director of JSC.
Following their training and evaluation year, Group 13 qualified for flight assignments in July 1991 and the first members of the class began drawing positions on shuttle missions. Thomas initially worked on issues relating to the shuttle program in the Safety and Operations Development Branches of the Astronaut Office and as Capcom during missions STS-47, STS-52, and STS-53 in the fall of 1992. In October of that year, he was assigned as a Mission Specialist on STS-65, an Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) flight, which launched on 8 July 1994. “When I felt the initial push in my back, as the shuttle took off,” he recalled in a later interview, “I knew that the dream of my lifetime was taking place, right then and there, before my very eyes.” Columbia remained in orbit for almost 15 days, securing a new endurance record for the shuttle fleet, and the seven-strong crew worked around the clock in the International Microgravity Laboratory (IML)-2 Spacelab module on a range of life and materials science investigations.
“Less than ten minutes after we had achieved orbit, I peered out of Columbia’s overhead windows and got my first glimpse of the Earth,” Thomas wrote on his website, OhioAstronaut.com. “I could only gasp and say aloud, ‘My God, how beautiful!’ The sky was a darker black than I had ever seen and the ultra-thin atmosphere surrounding our planet seemed to glow a beautiful fluorescent blue. About an hour later, I watched as we passed over the Kennedy Space Center and could see Launch Pad 39A, 200 miles below, as we completed our first full orbit of the Earth. I had made it to space!”
Operating in two 12-hour shifts, “Red” and “Blue,” engendered a measure of team bonding, particularly as there were four Group 13 astronauts—Thomas, Leroy Chiao, Jim Halsell, and Carl Walz—aboard STS-65. However, whereas Thomas, Chiao, and Walz were members of the Blue Team, Halsell was part of the Red Team, and this prompted the trio to torment him with some advice. “You know, you really should be blue,” they told him. “You really don’t belong with those red guys!”
“The dual-shift was very efficient, because we worked on science nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Thomas told AmericaSpace, “and we were able to accomplish an amazing amount of science. That totals up to something like 336 hours of science, per week, on Spacelab. When I was the ISS Program Scientist, a ‘good science week’ meant we got 12 hours of crew time for science, per week. Today, with a crew of six on ISS, we average between 60-80 hours a week for science.” However, he admitted that “We had much less maintenance to do on the Space Shuttle.”
Asked about how well he adapted to the peculiar microgravity environment on his first flight, and memorable events, Thomas had too many to recall: “This question would take me an hour to answer properly for you,” he said. “My first trip to space took me about two days to adapt and get my appetite going. On my other flights, the adaptation was almost immediate.”
With regard to memorable events, he tried to view as many orbital sunrises and sunsets as he possibly could on each of his four missions: “I particularly like the night passes, where I would watch for other satellites and shooting stars,” he reflected. “During a typical 45-minute night pass, I would see three to four shooting stars and one or two satellites. Thunderstorms at night were also incredibly impressive, where I would see 20-30 flashes of lightning each second, as we silently soared overhead.”
Less than a month after his return from STS-65, in August 1994, Thomas was assigned as a Mission Specialist on STS-70, tasked with the deployment of NASA’s seventh Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-G). Additionally, the mission represented the first flight of the new Block I Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), with the new Phase II+ powerhead, single-coil heat exchanger, and a new high-pressure oxidizer turbopump. Targeted for launch on 8 June 1995, STS-70 should have been the United States’ 100th piloted spaceflight, but for an unfortunate episode with a flock of Northern Flicker woodpeckers, which became attracted to Shuttle Discovery’s External Tank (ET), which they mistook for a tree.
About a week before launch, NASA engineers were called to Pad 39B to assess 71 “excavations” and other beak and claw marks in the ET’s foam insulation, all caused by the nesting woodpeckers. The damage required the shuttle to be returned to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for repairs, and STS-70 was leapfrogged by the next scheduled mission, STS-71, which flew in late June and became the 100th U.S. manned flight. At length, STS-70 launched on 13 July and ran for nine days, during which Thomas took the lead for the successful deployment of TDRS-G, atop a Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster. With four of the crew members born or raised in Ohio—Thomas and fellow Mission Specialist Mary Ellen Weber born in Cleveland, Commander Tom Henricks born in Bryan, and Mission Specialist Nancy Currie raised in Troy—only Pilot Kevin Kregel, who hailed from New York, stood in the way of STS-70 officially being the “All-Ohio Shuttle Crew.” As a result, the astronauts contacted Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, who issued an official proclamation, which made Kregel an “Honorary Ohioan.”
Six months later, in January 1996, Thomas was assigned to his third shuttle flight, as a Mission Specialist on STS-83, the first Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL)-1. Originally scheduled for launch in March 1997, the voyage aboard Columbia slipped into the first week of April, and it seemed at one stage that Thomas might lose his place. On 29 January, he slipped down some stairs after a routine emergency egress training exercise at JSC and broke his right ankle. As a precautionary measure, in February, fellow astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman was appointed to begin training as a backup Mission Specialist. “We are hopeful that Don will be cleared for flight,” said Dave Leestma, director of Flight Crew Operations. “He is an experienced astronaut with the majority of his required training for this flight already complete. The decision to assign Cady as backup was made to protect all available options.” By early March, Thomas told journalists that he was “in a period of pretty heavy physical therapy,” which included “spending about five to six hours a day walking in swimming pools, walking with the cast and without the cast, just getting my mobility strength back.” By the time of the STS-83 Flight Readiness Review (FRR) on 20 March, he had recovered and retained his place aboard the mission.
Launched on 4 April, STS-83 got off initially to a fine start, with the seven-member crew dividing into their dual-shift system for 16 days of intensive microgravity science and fluid physics research in the Spacelab module. However, within hours of reaching orbit, their attention was drawn to erratic behavior in one of Columbia’s three fuel cells, which raised the likelihood that it might need to be shut down and the mission curtailed. In spite of intensive troubleshooting efforts by Mission Control and the crew, the ailing cell showed no sign of improvement and STS-83 was declared a Minimum Duration Flight (MDF) and directed to return to Earth at the soonest opportunity. In spite of the disappointment, Mission Control faxed the crew a tongue-in-cheek list of the Top Ten reasons why they were coming home early. These included running out of “Columbian” coffee, forgetting to record the latest episode of Friends and forgetting to do their tax returns …
Notwithstanding the disappointment, the crew managed to see many spectacular views during their short period aloft. “During our first day in space, I was treated to one of the most magnificent sights ever seen from space,” Thomas recalled on OhioAstronaut.com. “As the Sun was setting at the end of one of our orbital ‘days’, I watched the beautiful colors of the sunset turn from blue to orange and red and then to the blackness of space. And then I noticed it. Seemingly hovering above the limb of the Earth was Comet Hale-Bopp.” Since its discovery in July 1995, the comet had grown progressively brighter and was visible to the naked eye by mid-1996, made its closest approach to Earth in March 1997, and eventually faded from view to the naked eye by December of that year. “I watched silently,” wrote Thomas, “as the comet rapidly approached the limb of the Earth and then suddenly saw its bright nucleus and tail disappear. Staring into the pitch-blackness of space, I suddenly realized that I had just witnessed my first ‘comet-set’!”
With landing scheduled for 8 April, the astronauts dimmed the lights aboard the Spacelab module and worked by torchlight to conserve as much power for their experiments as possible. Columbia touched down safely at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) after a mission which had lasted 47 minutes shy of four full days, making STS-83 the second-shortest “operational” shuttle flight of all time. However, informal plans were afoot to refly MSL-1 and the entire crew, later in 1997. “There were rumour already flying,” noted Thomas on OhioAstronaut.com, “that after fixing the problem, NASA would be re-flying our crew in a few months to complete our Spacelab science mission. That definitely helped ease the sting of coming home early.”
Two weeks later, on 25 April, NASA formally announced that the reflight—designated STS-94—would launch as soon as 1 July, producing an 84-day processing flow between missions for Columbia, the shortest experienced by any of the orbiters in the post-Challenger era. From the perspective of the flight directors and training teams, the reflight was treated as a launch delay, since the astronauts were already fully trained and up to speed on payloads. “Our training,” Thomas told AmericaSpace, “was mostly refresher training … and the timeline was identical for STS-94.”
Columbia lifted off perfectly on 1 July and flew a spectacular 16-day mission, completing all and more of its original scientific objectives for MSL-1. At one stage, working on the Structure of Flame Balls at Low Lewis Number (SOFBALL) experiment, Thomas received the distinction of having a new combustion effect named in his honor. One surprising finding from SOFBALL involved the consequence of two small fuel droplets burning in close proximity to one another; they initially moved away, then approached each other, in a phenomenon dubbed the “Thomas Twin Effect.”
Returning to Earth at the end of his fourth mission in just 36 months, Thomas sat on Columbia’s flight deck and was able to watch the furnace of re-entry through the overhead windows. “Only five or six feet above me, I watched as huge flames developed, then peeled away from us as a plasma enveloped Columbia, due to frictional heating of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere,” he wrote on OhioAstronaut.com. “Out the front windows, we could see the orange-pinkish glow enveloping us. There were bright flashes lighting up the cockpit as the overhead flames flickered outside, above my head. It was a most beautiful light show, mesmerizing to watch.”
By the time he landed after STS-94, Thomas had accrued 1,040 hours—more than 43 days—of his life in space, making him one of the first dozen astronauts to pass 1,000 hours of cumulative experience aboard the shuttle. During his four missions, he orbited Earth over 690 times and traveled in excess of 17.6 million miles (28.3 million km). In his subsequent NASA career, he served from July 1999 through June 2000 as Director of Operations at the Star City cosmonaut training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, and in March 2001 he was assigned to his fifth mission, as a Flight Engineer aboard Expedition 6. He would be joined by Commander Ken Bowersox of NASA and Flight Engineer Nikolai Budarin of Russia, with an anticipated launch aboard the shuttle in late 2002 for a four-month stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
“My personal goal was to fly a long-duration mission after flying four shorter Space Shuttle flights,” Thomas told AmericaSpace. “I wanted to something different and the ISS mission would provide that opportunity.” Both he and Bowersox had flown four short shuttle flights, and it was Bowersox’s opinion that their prior experience “was probably a hindrance” when tackling the different mindset required for a long-duration mission. For his part, Thomas did not share this perspective. “I think Bowersox is minimizing the value of previous spaceflight experience,” he explained. “The training for ISS was nevertheless much different, because we did half our training in Star City and we all needed to learn Russian. It required many days away from home. I spent 15 days away from home, total, training for my STS-70 mission, but spent more than a year away from home training for ISS-6. It was much tougher on the crews and their families.”
By August 2001, the STS-113 shuttle astronauts who would deliver Expedition 6 to the space station—Commander Jim Wetherbee, Pilot Christopher “Gus” Loria, and Mission Specialists Mike Lopez-Alegria and John Herrington—had also been assigned and over the course of the following year the two crews trained independently and together. Then, in July 2002, Thomas was abruptly grounded, following “a medical issue” pertaining to his qualification for long-duration spaceflight, specifically cumulative radiation exposure, and backup crewman Don Pettit was advanced onto the prime crew. At the time of the crew swap, only four months remained before the scheduled November 2002 launch of Expedition 6 aboard Shuttle Endeavour on STS-113.
“I did not support the mission after I was removed from the flight,” Thomas told AmericaSpace, “but worked on other projects.” In August 2003, following the tragic loss of Columbia, he succeeded Neal Pellis as NASA’s second International Space Station Program Scientist. As part of this role, he worked with principal investigators and the ISS Program Office to ensure that scientific and engineering requirements were clearly communicated among the participants, as well as serving as the science spokesman to the scientific and international research communities and the general public. Thomas held the role through his retirement from NASA in July 2007. He subsequently became Director of the Willard Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science in the Jess and Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics at Towson University, near Baltimore, Md., a position which he continues to hold to this day.
The author would like to express his thanks to Dr. Don Thomas, for sharing his memories and experiences from his four shuttle missions.