Donald Thomas: How I Became A NASA Astronaut

Sometimes, all your child needs is an inspiring ‘never give up’ story – to help him believe in himself and follow his dreams. Hear a NASA astronaut’s true-life account!

By Team ParentCircle

Donald Thomas: How I Became A NASA Astronaut

If there is an astronaut who deserves to be remembered for his notable achievements and 'never give up' spirit, Donald Alan Thomas would be among the front runners. A decorated NASA astronaut, his story is nothing short of magical and inspirational for children.

A veteran of four space flights, Don Thomas has spent a good 44 days in space. Further, he has logged in a whopping 1040 hours in space, orbited the earth nearly 700 times and is the proud recipient of multiple NASA awards. He has also authored a book titled Orbit of Discovery.

In this inspirational written piece, Don, who is also a scientist, a professional speaker and educator shares his childhood dream and the journey that made that dream come true. Read on and dream big.

A childhood dream...

I first wanted to become an astronaut when I was just six years old. On 6 May 1961, the USA launched its first astronaut in space. At that time, I was in elementary school and I remember how they gathered all the students on the floor of the school's gymnasium to watch momentous feat on a small black and white television. 

I remember sitting there and saying, ‘I want to do that’. So ever since I was a little boy, I knew I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to ride a rocket to space, I wanted to experience zero gravity out there and I always knew what I wanted to do but I was not sure how to become an astronaut.

Competition was tough

We only had around 7 American astronauts at that time and I didn’t know any of them. However, one thing I realised early on was that it was not going to be easy for me as there was a lot of competition. Every year, thousands of people apply to become an astronaut, but only a handful are selected. So, I knew as a young boy that my only chance of becoming an astronaut was by working very hard in school every day. We have all heard of the saying ‘Work hard and do your best’. Children hear it all the time from their teachers, principal, parents, etc. – and it is very good advice because you never know how what you are learning today can help you in the future.

So, I always tried to do my best in any subject – math, science and also music, art, reading, gym, history – whatever I worked on, whatever I studied, I always gave it my best effort. In high school I got my bachelor’s degrees in Physics, one of the sciences and that is the minimum degree you need to become an astronaut. A four-year college degree in math, science, engineering or medical field. Being aware of the intense competition, I stayed in college and went to Cornell University and got my masters and PhD in engineering. So, after nine and a half years in university I got out and I took a job with a company called AT & T and got in laboratory doing research work for them. I started applying to NASA at this point.

My first application to NASA

Donald Thomas: How I Became A NASA Astronaut

NASA selects a new group of 10 astronauts every three, four, five years depending on their needs. It was two years after I got out of university that NASA put the announcement out that they needed new astronauts. I was all excited and I wrote to them and carefully filled their application form and mailed it back to them. And guess what happened? They turned me down. They politely declined my application saying thank you but we don’t want you. I was surprised but did not give up. Two years later, there was another selection for astronauts. I sent in my application again and they turned me down again. At that point, I literally thought my grandmother and I had the same chance of becoming an astronaut, which was zero.

I realised I needed to do more...

At this point in life, I knew I needed to do more to get noticed by NASA and being an engineer, I carefully began to study the data. I looked into the background of the people who were successful making it to the astronaut program to see what they had that I did not. By studying more, I learnt about the types of background, the education and the experience that the successful candidates possessed. The first and foremost thing I noticed was that most of the astronauts they were selecting had some flying experience. It was not a requirement to have previous flying experience, but it seemed to help. So, I started taking flying lessons and I got my pilot’s license. Also, most of the astronauts that they were selecting had parachuting or sky diving experience. So, I learned to do that as well. Further, I taught a university course that seemed to be an experience NASA was looking for.

Third time lucky?

As I was working on these activities, three years later there was another astronaut selection. I sent my application and this time NASA invited me to the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas for a week of medical testing and an interview. Out of the thousands of that applied, NASA would select a hundred individuals in Houston, Texas for a week to undergo the medical examination and a one-hour interview. I passed all the medical tests and the interview also went well. At the end of my week with NASA I thought it couldn’t have gone any better for me and I went back to my job and just sat there and waited to know if I had made it or not. A week went by and suddenly some of my friends began calling me saying the police were making inquiries about me. I was worried and rightly so – if the police are calling about you, it is either good or bad right? Fortunately for me, it was good, as NASA was doing a security background check on me and was looking at the police records to see if has been in any trouble.

They called my former bosses in every company I had worked to know what kind of a worker I was, my attitude towards my co-workers, the way I treated customers, my adherence to office timings, etc. They also visited the neighbourhood I lived in and talked to my neighbours, to find out more about me and my personality. And when I heard this was going on, I thought this was a great sign. I didn’t think NASA could be doing this detailed security check of all the one hundred people they interviewed and I figured out that they must have selected their astronauts and this was the final security check to know that you are good to go before they announce the name.

I was excited and three months later, I got a phone call from NASA. They called me up and said, ‘Don thank you for applying. We have a lot of good candidates and we did not select you but good luck in future’. I hung up the phone and I was devastated. I thought I had made it in and here for the third time NASA rejected me. So here, I thought it was time for me to give up on this silly dream of mine. I gave it my best effort, I tried hard three times, but NASA just didn’t want me. So, I thought I would go to bed, get a good night’s sleep, and in the morning make a new plan for my career that did not involve being an astronaut.

Never give up!

Donald Thomas: How I Became A NASA Astronaut

The next morning, the first thought that popped in my mind was that I still wanted to be an astronaut! So, I asked myself if there was anything else I could do to improve my background and make myself a better candidate. By looking at the people NASA was selecting, I discovered that they selected candidates who were already working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas. So, I quit my job and drove to Houston and got a job with NASA as an engineer in a space shuttle program that I did for three years.

Soon thereafter, another astronaut selection took place. I sent in my application and I got called up for medical tests and interviews once again. And, after two months I got a phone call from NASA and this time they called and said, ‘Don are you still interested in becoming an astronaut because we would like to offer you the job’. I said, ‘Yes’, and hung up the phone and for the next ten minutes I was jumping up and down yelling because I knew that I had made it into the program. I was 35 years old when I got that call and I started out a 4-year training program, so the first time I made it to space I was 39 years old. 39 years old is pretty much an old man, right?

Neil Armstrong was my hero

Neil Armstrong was always a hero of mine when I was growing up. He was from the state of Ohio, which is also my state. So, I wrote to him and invited him to watch the launch of my third spaceship shuttle and told him that I was one of the Ohio astronauts and invited him to come. To my delight, he wrote back and he said ‘Il be there’. And I was like ‘Wow’, and so excited. And a day before the launch, NASA management called me to inform that Mr. Armstrong wanted to meet with me. I got to spend an hour with him and even took a prized picture of Neil Armstrong and his wife Carol with me and my wife Sabona. And to spend an hour with Neil Armstrong was really an incredible moment. I flew in space four times, but one of the most amazing things I have done in my life is spending that one hour with Neil Armstrong.

So, the number one lesson I have learnt in my life is to never give up. You all have dreams for your future, big dreams and small dreams. It takes hard work, it takes time to get there and it takes persistence. But if you are willing to work hard, you can accomplish anything you want to in your lifetime, just as I was able to do. I went on to being from this little boy dreaming to get into space – to getting assigned on 4 missions. So, work hard and dreams do come true!

Hall of Fame

  1. Recipient of multiple NASA awards – NASA Sustained Superior Performance Award (1989), 4 NASA Group Achievement Awards, 4 NASA Space Flight Medals, 2 NASA Exceptional Service Medals, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.
  2. Veteran of four space flights, spent a total of 44 days in space.
  3. Logged in more than 1000 hours in space, orbited the earth nearly 700 times.
  4. Graduated with honors from Case Western Reserve University in 1977.
  5. Also an adjunct professor in the Physics department at Trenton State College in New Jersey.
  6. Featured as a celebrity visitor to the spaceship R.U. Sirius in the comic strip "Brewster Rockit" by Tim Rickard.

About the Author:

Written by Team Parent Circle on 12 February 2020.

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