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Photo of Andrew Thomas Journey to Mars:
We're On Our Way

Andrew Thomas

q Do you want to travel to Mars and why?

A To my thinking, the idea of stepping foot on, and visiting another planet would be one of the most extraordinary adventures that anyone could possibly do. Just imagine what it would be like... every thing you saw and experienced, and all the sights would be those of another world.

q What you you think about John Glenn's recent flight? Would you still want to go in space when you are 77 like John Glenn?

A John's flight has captured the imagination of the public and has been a huge bolster to the space program. But I do not think I will still be in this line of work when I am that age.

q After watching Alan Alda using the prototype exercise equipment on this show, I wondered how many hours you exercised per day while living on the Mir? What exercise machine do you think helped you the most in space?

A On Mir we had two treadmills and an exercise bike that we could use. I mostly used the treadmill and I would run for 20 to 30 minutes on it each day. We used a harness and system of bungies to hold us in place while we ran. The main benefit it offers is cardiovascular conditioning and the ability to exercise muscle groups that do not normally get a work out in zero gravity.

q I enjoyed the show last night. It was very interesting. On Mir do astronauts sleep on the wall as in the NASA habitat shown on "Journey to Mars"? If so, was it comfortable to sleep on the wall? I tried to do that on Earth, but it wasn't cozy.

A While on Mir I did not sleep on the wall but instead I hooked my sleeping bag to the floor. But on my first flight I did sleep. The first time I stood up was a bizarre sensation and I had legs that felt unbelievably heavy and required a seemingly huge effort to move. And curiously the soles of my feet were very tender as I had not walked on them for 20 weeks.

q What does it feel like to blast off? Besides the physical feeling, I'd like to know about the feelings and emotions you experience when the rocket is about to launch.

A The launch is the most exciting of all the sensations of space flight. There is massive rumbling way below you as the engines start followed by tremendous shaking and vibration as the solid rockets drive you up into the sky. You feel pressed steadily into your seat as you are accelerated faster and faster. Of all the experiences that can be had, in the last decade of the 20th century, riding into space on the shuttle has to be the most wonderful.

q I am curious about experiments you may have done in space. What is the most interesting, weirdest or scariest experiment you have ever done in space?

A I have done experiments in materials science, biotechnology as well as experiments to look at the way the human body adapts to zero gravity. We have also done experiments to look at new technologies for space craft. Perhaps one of the most interesting in this category was on my first flight where we inflated a huge antenna in space to explore the feasibility of this kind of light weight structure for an advanced spacecraft design.

q If I want to be an astronaut, what should I study in college? What do I need to learn about space ships before I go? Do I need to know how to fly an airplane?

A Astronauts can be mission specialist astronauts or pilot astronauts. Mission specialists come from many technical professions such as scientists, engineers and physicians, so educational background in any of these is useful to NASA. But usually, post graduate education is sought after. The main thing that the selection panel likes to see is individuals who have a proven record in their career and a demonstrated ability to address different kinds of problems... that is an ability and interest in a diverse range of topics. An interest in flying is also desirable. If you wish to become a pilot astronaut, then military flight experience is needed in high performance jet aircraft.

q My science class watched the special on Mars and we wonder if you missed your friends and family when you were gone? Was there any way to contact them while you were up in space?

A While I was on Mir, I had a personal radio contact with the ground once a week. This would either be a radio hookup to friends and family or sometimes a video hookup. I was also able to receive email from people on the ground, and I had access to a ham radio that let me make personal contacts to friends and family when I was flying over them.

q What different kinds of foods do you eat on Mir? How much of the food is grown in the space station and how much is supplied to you by the supply ships? Do you get to have food like pizza and ice cream?

A No, I did not have pizza or ice cream. But I did have a good selection of food, both Russian and American. I had various selections of meats, vegetables and soups, as well as a whole range of fruit juices and tea and coffee. This was all brought up with me on the shuttle and some fresh food came up on the Porgress resupply ships. None is grown on the station.

q What are your future plans. When will you be going back into space?

A Yes, I hope to return to space again. I spent 20 weeks up there and I very much enjoyed it and I want to experience it some more. I do not know when this will be or what I will be doing, but since we are now starting on the International Space Station, I suspect that I will be involved in its assembly in some capacity.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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