Dr Andrew Thomas AO
NASA Astronaut (retired)

Andrew’s story

What’s it like to work on a space station? Just ask Dr Andrew ‘Andy’ Thomas, the boy from Adelaide who grew up to be an astronaut.

Andy (as he was known throughout his career) had established a research career before he got the call from NASA. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Adelaide. After completing his PhD, he went off in search of adventure and landed in the US.

He worked at Lockheed for over a decade, first as an aerodynamics researcher and eventually becoming the manager of their Flight Sciences Division. Then, in 1989, he moved to California to join NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

It was a prestigious career in its own right, and a time that Andy looks back on fondly. “But I always had this nagging feeling that there had to be something more for me,” he says. “That’s what led me to pursue the goal of becoming an astronaut. I knew it would be better to try and fail than to never try at all.”

Andy realised he ticked all the astronaut boxes. He had taken on US citizenship some years earlier and had the right career background. So he sent off his application to NASA, “with the full expectation that I would not succeed”.

Then in March 1992, NASA called to ask if he was still interested and that he had been accepted as an astronaut candidate.

“I remember putting the phone down and thinking, wow, my life has just changed in an unbelievable way,” he says.

Andy completed four space flights during his career, spending a total of 177 days, 9 hours and 14 minutes in space. His first was mission STS-77 onboard the space shuttle Endeavour, which launched in May 1996. Next, he spent twenty weeks on the Russian Mir Space Station after a year of training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia

He was onboard the shuttle Discovery when it visited the International Space Station (ISS) in March 2001. During this mission, Andy completed a 6.5-hour spacewalk to install components on the outside of the space station. His fourth and final space flight took place in July and August 2005, when the Discovery returned again to the ISS. It was NASA’s first space flight since the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

Of all his experiences in space, Andy says his time on the Mir Space Station was the highlight of his career. “Growing up I thought it would be amazing to be an astronaut. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that I could also become a cosmonaut.” His training for that mission included learning Russian and completing a winter survival camp in Siberia.

Andy retired from NASA in 2014 after 22 years in the astronaut corps. With just under six months in space, that’s a lot of time on the ground. But there’s still work to do back on Earth. Like all astronauts, Andy spent most of his time helping other crews prepare for missions. He also served as Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office in Houston for several years.

So back to the original question: what’s it like to work on a space station? As it turns out, it’s much like any other job. “There’s eight hours of work and eight hours of sleep for five days a week,” Andy says. “Then on the weekends you have reduced duties so you can relax and watch a movie.

“Or look out the window. It’s always good to look out the window, there’s always something new and exciting to see.”

Andrew’s journey

  • Andy completed a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering with First Class Honours, at the University of Adelaide in 1973.
  • He then went on to complete a PhD in fluid mechanics in 1978.
  • Wanting to see the world, Andy moved to the United States to work for Lockheed as a research scientist.
  • After a decade at Lockheed, Andy moved to California to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
  • He was selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in March 1992, at the age of 40.
  • His first space flight was on mission STS-77 on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1996. He was the payload commander for the mission.
  • In 1998, Andy served as Flight Engineer 2 on the Russian Mir Space Station for 140 days.
  • Andy’s third and fourth missions were on board the space shuttle Discovery, visiting the International Space Station. They took place in 2001 and 2005. Andy completed a 6.5-hour spacewalk on his third mission.
  • Andy served in NASA’s astronaut corps for 22 years, including several years as Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office in Houston.
  • Andy holds a number of honours and awards. These include the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the Yuri Gagarin Medal, the Russian Medal of Merit, the Russian Order of Friendship, and Life Membership of the Space Industry Association of Australia. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2000.