An Adelaide-born boy who grew up playing with rockets and dreamed of becoming an astronaut, Andy Thomas became Australia’s first member of NASA’s elite astronaut corps. He flew four missions over 12 years, spending a total of 6 months in space.
Born on 18 December 1951, Thomas studied mechanical engineering at the University of Adelaide. He 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.
Realising that his health, education, physical attributes and work experience fulfilled NASA’s astronaut criteria, he applied for the astronaut program and went to work on NASA-sponsored micro-gravity research at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. At the age of 40 he was selected to start 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 Thomas 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 oceanographer, flew in Challenger from 5–13 October 1984, as a civilian payload specialist).
Thomas then moved to Russia for a year of preparation for a mission that included 141 days aboard Mir space station. The last NASA astronaut to take part in the Shuttle–Mir Science Program, he had to learn to speak Russian and be trained in Russian systems and technology.
In 2001 Thomas undertook his third space mission, aboard the shuttle Discovery, to the International Space Station (ISS). His tasks on this mission included a 6.5-hour spacewalk to tackle an electrical problem on the Discovery while it was docked at the ISS, 320 kilometres above Earth. Thomas took special Aussie artefacts into space during this mission, including Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s watch and a piece of wood from Mawson’s Hut in Antarctica.
On his return, Thomas was appointed deputy chief of the NASA Astronaut Office. His final space mission was in 2005, during which he returned to the ISS. After 22 years with NASA, Andy Thomas retired in 2014.
From a cave 2,000 metres under the Earth, wooden huts in the Antarctic, to the heat of the Australian sun, Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 greatest explorers will take visitors across Australia, around the globe, into outer space and back.
Created by the Australian Museum and curated by Antarctic adventurer and author Howard Whelan, the exhibition brings together 29 historic and 21 modern adventurers and explorers. Learn more here.