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    The number one lesson I have learnt in my life is to never give up: Donald Thomas talks about becoming a NASA astronaut

    Team ParentCircle Team ParentCircle 9 Mins Read

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    Written by Team ParentCircle and published on 14 June 2021.

    Sometimes, all your child needs is an inspiring never-give-up story to help him believe in himself and follow his dreams. Here's one such account of an astronaut!

    The number one lesson I have learnt in my life is to never give up: Donald Thomas talks about becoming a NASA astronaut

    If an astronaut 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.

    "I thought I had made it in, but for the third time, NASA had rejected me. I thought it was time for me to finally give up on my silly dream. The next morning, the first thought that popped into my head was that I still wanted to be an astronaut!"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 the 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 realized 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 that as a young boy, 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 math, science, 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 degree in Physics. The minimum degree one needed to become an astronaut then was a four-year college degree in math, science, engineering, or a medical field. Being aware of the intense competition, I stayed in college and went to Cornell University, and got my masters and Ph.D. in engineering. So, after nine and a half years in university, I took a job with a company called AT & T and started doing research work for them. I started applying to NASA at this point.

    My first application to NASA

    Donald

    NASA selects a new group of 10 astronauts every three, four, or five years depending on their need. It was two years after I got out of university that NASA put out the announcement for new astronauts. I was so excited and I carefully filled out the application form and mailed it back to them. And guess what happened? They turned me down. They politely declined my application. I was surprised but did not give up. Two years later, there was another selection for astronauts. I sent in my application but 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 realized 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 data. I looked into the background of the people who were successful in making it to the astronaut program to see what they had that I did not. By studying more, I learnt about the background, education, and experience of successful candidates.

    The first and foremost thing I noticed was that most of the astronauts had 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, some of the astronauts 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. Out of the thousands who applied, NASA would select a hundred individuals 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 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 were calling about you, it is either good or bad, right? Fortunately for me, it was good, as NASA was doing a security background check 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 neighborhood I lived in and talked to my neighbors, 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 for all the hundred people they had interviewed and I figured that they must have selected the astronauts and that this was the final security check before they announced the names of selected people.

    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 the future". I hung up the phone. I was devastated. I thought I had made it in, but for the third time, NASA had rejected me. I thought it was time for me to finally give up on my silly dream. I had given it my best effort, 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

    The next morning, the first thought that popped into my head was that I still wanted to be an astronaut! So, I asked myself if there was anything else I could do to 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. I worked there 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? 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. I was 35 years old when I got that call and I started a 4-year training program, so the first time I made it to space I was 39 years old.

    Neil Armstrong was my hero

    "I have been to space four times, but one of the most amazing things I have done in my life is spending that one hour with Neil Armstrong"Neil Armstrong was always my hero when I was growing up. We were both from the state of Ohio. So, I wrote to him and invited him to watch the launch of my third spaceship shuttle, telling him I was an Ohio astronaut too. To my delight, he wrote back and said he would be there. I was so excited. A day before the launch, NASA management called me to inform me that Mr. Armstrong wanted to meet me. I got to spend an hour with him, and my wife Sabona and I even took a picture with him and his wife Carol. I have been to 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. I went 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
    • 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.
    • A veteran of four space flights, he spent a total of 44 days in space.
    • Logged in more than 1000 hours in space, orbited the earth nearly 700 times.
    • Graduated with honors from Case Western Reserve University in 1977.
    • Also an adjunct professor in the Physics department at Trenton State College in New Jersey.
    • Featured as a celebrity visitor to the spaceship R.U. Sirius in the comic strip Brewster Rockit by Tim Rickard.


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