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An Interview with Astronaut Andy Thomas

From a personal point of view, of course, it's to fly in space again. It's been three years since I've flown, so I'm excited by that prospect.

But this, of course, is undeniably a very important flight, perhaps the most important shuttle flight since Challenger. And it's a great thrill to be a part of the team that's supporting Return to Flight and to do the mission. It's just going to be exciting.


Of course, because of the (STS-107) accident, we have a lot of requirements on this flight that no other flight has had to deal with. There are new procedures for doing inspections, for doing repair, for evaluating the integrity of the vehicle.

We're going to be the first people to ever do those, and that's a new task. We're developing those tasks; they're not completely developed yet. They're being planned as we talk, and so the training's not as developed as it might normally be at this stage in flight, which means as we get closer to flight we're going to be in for a fairly busy time to adequately prepare. But I'm sure we can do it.

The hardest part for space flight is the focus that you need. You have a defined objective, which might be a year or so away, and you've got to prepare yourself adequately for that objective. So you've got to make sure you understand all the objectives of the mission and make sure you know what your responsibilities are and train for those responsibilities.

And you always have this sort of underlying feeling as you do it, like, what have I forgotten? What is it that I don't know that I need to know for this mission?

And it's actually good to ask that, because when you keep asking yourself that question, you come up with things and you say, oh yes, well I need to look at this or I need to study this, and that way you increase your preparedness for the flight and it makes you a better crew person.

You spend so much time immersing yourself in the details of the flight that you do develop a lot of confidence and you do understand the procedures.

But there's always that sort of night-before-finals feeling, when you're in crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center waiting to go and you ask yourself, is there something that I've overlooked? What is it that I may have forgotten? You always have that in the back of your mind, just like you're studying for finals in graduate school or something.

It is early still; I wouldn't say I have anxieties. The issue I think we're going to be facing is because we're going to be carrying a lot of new systems for evaluating the integrity of the vehicle. We've got to make sure those systems are adequately developed. That means it's very hard to have an accurate, defined launch date. We do have a launch date, but there's uncertainty as to whether we will conform to that, because it's been stated that we will not be schedule driven in this. We will make sure that the systems we have are adequately prepared and are ready for flight. And so there's some uncertainty of when we actually will fly, so that makes it a little bit of a gray area out there.

New Space Initiative

I think it's tremendously exciting. It's something we've actually needed for a long time, to define what we're going to do with this infrastructure and all of the space travel technology that we've developed through the Shuttle program and through the International Space Station.

And now we have that as a clear mandate of what we should do and it makes sense, I think, to expand our presence slowly. By the time we actually start these voyages of exploration will probably be beyond my professional lifetime, at least as a flying status astronaut, but I would like to think that I would have some expertise that I could offer in terms of helping develop the vehicles and developing the missions and so on, because I think it's going to be a tremendous adventure, a great, exciting adventure.


At the moment, there are three: There are two that are actually the legacy of the original STS-114 as it was defined pre-107, and those two are EVAs are to install some components on the International Space Station (a failed control moment gyro and a stowage platform) and there are two EVAs dedicated to those tasks.

What is new -- the third EVA -- which is a consequence of the Columbia accident -- is to look at techniques for repairing tile and Reinforced Carbon Carbon composite leading edge material in space. We'll actually be carrying some samples of those materials in the payload bay, as well as collections of various repair adhesives and so on, which we'll apply to them in the vacuum and the conditions of space to see how they do in terms of adequately filling a void, filling a repair on a tile.

Then that material will be brought back to Earth and actually tested in facilities to see how well it does.

Fallen heroes

It's obviously a sad day. I think all those people involved in human space flight and the people here in Florida and the people at Johnson can't help but remember the disbelief we felt on Feb. 1 of last year, and the stunned disbelief we had that we'd actually lost this vehicle that had been the flagship, if you like, of the fleet of Shuttles, and that we'd lost seven friends, seven colleagues.

I think everyone will be remembering that and perhaps in that remembrance we'll find motivation to continue to undertake the president's initiative of space exploration, and to ensure that we do return safely to flight later this year.

Mars Exploration

The pictures that have come back from those two rovers have been quite captivating, I think, for everyone.

The vote that's often raised in Congress and so on is, should we explore the solar system through robotic probes or through human exploration? It's kind of an all or nothing argument. I think what these rovers show is there's a huge contribution robotic exploration can make.

But I think, ultimately, the answer for exploration is a balance between human exploration and robotic exploration, using the robotic probes as the pathfinders to lay the groundwork to help define where people should go. And then ultimately, I think you do want people to do the exploration, because there are tasks that you will need people for and you need people able to make real-time decisions if we're going to do this exploration.

Another question that's often raised, particularly when people address the cost of these missions... People, I think, have an improper understanding of the cost of these missions, and they quote huge numbers that are just ridiculous. These costs, compared to the federal budget, are actually very small.

The people say, why should we do this? What's the benefit of mankind of going to Mars? And I think the benefits are very real and tangible, because robotic explorations have shown some fascinating features on Mars in recent years.

There's evidence of riverbeds, lake shorelines, coastlines, there's evidence of water. That tells us that Mars is now a planet very different from what we once thought and may at one time have been very different from where it is right now. And possibly, in the early days of the solar system, had life of its own. Those remnants of that life might still be there, in fossil form. If that were the case, it would be tremendously important for us to know that.

And I think that question -- is there life on another planet? -- more than adequately justifies the cost and the expenditure of exploring Mars. And I think to answer that question would be of profound importance to us as a species and as a people and as a culture.

Kennedy Space Center Experience

When I was first assigned as an astronaut quite a few years ago now, I asked that my first technical assignment would be to come down to the Cape as an astronaut support person, or what we call a Cape Crusader. I was very fortunate to actually get that appointment and I spent most of the following year commuting here, and it was just tremendously exciting, because this was where the action was.

This is where the rocket launch was from, and I got to participate and support a number of launches back then, which was a tremendous learning experience for someone who had not been directly involved in space flight hardware up to that time. I learned a tremendous amount and I just enjoyed the experience because there was so much history here, and I remember when I was a kid growing up in Australia and I would read National Geographic and it would show pictures of Florida and these launch pads and talk about the Cape and it was just this mysterious place that I was just fascinated and intrigued by, and I couldn't believe that I had the opportunity to come and actually work here.

It was a great adventure. Now to come back supporting this mission is a huge privilege and I'm just glad to be part of it.

NASA's Kennedy Space Center and Johnson Space Center