Adelaide astronaut Andy Thomas on why SA is great for space

By Melissa Keogh

South Australia’s spaceman Dr Andy Thomas was the boy from Adelaide who became the country’s first NASA astronaut.

Over two decades, the University of Adelaide’s most famous graduate embarked on four space flights, one spacewalk, and even worked alongside Hollywood’s elite on the 2013 film Gravity.

But what is the perennial question people always ask the veteran astronaut?

How do you go to the toilet in space?

Adelaide's own spaceman Dr Andy Thomas. PHOTO: NASA.

Every astronaut needs their own space portrait. Dr Andy Thomas is Adelaide’s own spaceman. PHOTO: NASA.

“Everyone asks that,” Dr Thomas tells the September 22 SA Press Club luncheon.

“I got to meet the Prime Minister of Japan one year and he asked all the attendants to leave.

“He said, ‘now that everyone has gone, let me ask you a question’.”

Dr Thomas doesn’t explain space toilet procedures, instead suggesting to “go to YouTube”.

“I get a lot of questions … what is it like to be weightless for 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Bizarre is the best way to describe it.

“What is it like to recover when you get back to earth? Also bizarre.”

Dr Andy Thomas was born in Adelaide in 1951.

In the 1970s he completed a bachelor’s degree and PhD in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Adelaide before moving overseas to work in the US aviation industry.

Throughout his NASA career, Dr Thomas spent 177 days in space.

One of his most memorable experiences was his third space mission in 2001 aboard the shuttle Discovery, during which he carried out a 6.5-hour spacewalk.

“I was high up in the solar array … I could see the space station below us, stretching out and beyond that is infinity. You could see this deep blackness of infinity,” Dr Thomas says.

“It was an amazing view.”

Dr Andy Thomas addresses the SA Press Club about the importance of Australia having a national space agency.

Dr Andy Thomas addresses the SA Press Club about the importance of Australia having a national space agency.

Dr Thomas’ visit to Adelaide comes as 3500 space industry experts descend upon the city for the 68th International Astronautical Congress from September 25–29.

On day one of the congress, the Federal Government announced a national space agency would be created in Australia to tap into the $420 billion industry and create thousands of jobs.

Australia is one of the world’s only developed countries without a national space agency.

Dr Thomas says space is as important to Australia as “railroads were in the early development of the country” and that SA is well-placed to play a part in the national agency.

“The Defence SA organisation put together a listing of all the companies in SA who are involved in space … there are over 50 of them so it’s a really big part of the SA economy,” he says.

Despite Australia lagging behind in the national space agency stakes, Dr Thomas applauded Premier Jay Weatherill’s recent announcement of a new space industry centre for SA.

He says the state is already competing in the space sector.

In 2013 Dr Thomas consulted on the space movie Gravity alongside Hollywood A-lister Sandra Bullock and he notes that Adelaide-based visual effects company Rising Sun Pictures generated scenes for the film.

“A lot of people say SA can’t compete in the space sector,” he says.

“Well, that’s an example where they do on the international stage.”

Watch the video below to see Andy Thomas in space.

Header photo courtesy of NASA.

This month’s I Choose SA for Industries stories are made possible by sponsor, the University of South Australia.