Getting tips from former astronaut     

Dr Andy Thomas, the first Australian astronaut in spacesuit. – Pictures from

ALMOST 18 years ago, I had a science student in a Grade 11 class in a school up north on mainland New Guinea who indicated that his career goal would be to become an astronaut.
At that time, I thought his dream was a bit too far-fetched, it would be impossible to be an astronaut because we in Papua New Guinea did not have a space industry. (In the 1990s, when we were students at the university in Port Moresby, our physics professor then informed us that there were talks on possibly developing a space port in PNG, particularly in Manus. That aroused a lot of interest in many of us, however whatever the plans were did not materialise into anything.)

Impossibility can become possible
Despite my initial thought about the near impossibility of the PNG boy achieving his space dreams, over the years I began to think more about what he said and learned from other sources that whenever you cannot develop your ideas where you are, you should move to a place where the infrastructure and expertise are available.
To become a space engineer or an astronaut, a PNG student should strive to do well in our nation (in physics or engineering) and then apply abroad to train in institutions that have courses and programmes in line with such fields.
That strategy of moving abroad was further confirmed when I learned about Australia’s first astronaut, who I had the privilege to listen to talking during a forum last month.
When I walked into The University of Adelaide students’ hub in the second day of my arrival in Adelaide, I noticed a quote written in large print along two parts of the entrance of the building.
It was a quote by Andy Thomas, Australia’s first astronaut, who obtained his BSc degree and PhD in mechanical engineering here at The University of Adelaide.

The print reads: “I carried a dream … I was able to turn that dream into a realistic ambition which ultimately took me to space.” – Graduate 1973, Australia’s first astronaut
That quote, and after learning of Thomas’ becoming an astronaut, gave me some information, vital details that I could relay to the PNG boy who was in my class almost 20 years ago, the kid who wanted be an astronaut.
What was then an impossibility could be a possibility because I now knew what I didn’t know then.

Thomas’ education and determination
Thomas, who was born in 1951, is a local Adelaide man, born and raised here.
He obtained his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees here in Adelaide.
His father said that Thomas’ dream of space was evident when he was a child. He would build rockets out of cardboards.
It is clear from reading about Thomas that the absence of a space industry in Australia when he was younger would not deter his plan to go into space.
To realise his dream, he had to go through a process, to get him closer to his dream.
First, he first won a job with Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company in Georgia (USA). There, he worked his way up to becoming manager of the flight sciences division when he was in his 30s.
His job experience with the aircraft firm helped him get a job with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) in USA and eventually he qualified to undergo 12 months of training to become an astronaut.
In May 1996, at 45, Thomas fulfilled his space dream when he joined six other astronauts as the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour in a 10-day mission.
He flew with three other space missions over 12 years, spending at least six months in space.
Thomas also trained in Russia with cosmonauts and accompanied a team into space.
After his space trips, he continued to serve with Nasa as a manager of the astronaut office. He spent a total of 22 years working there until his retirement in 2014.

Space industry and space talk
Thomas’ achievements have influenced the Australian government to establish the Australian Space Agency in July 2018. Its headquarters is here in Adelaide.
(Last month, I also wrote about Andrea Boyd, an Adelaide woman, who works for the International Space Station in Cologne, Germany. She was also another engineer whose achievements had made a similar influence as Thomas’.)
It is not surprising therefore that South Australia is often nicknamed the “Space State”, among its other well-known tags like “Festival State”, or “Wine State”.
There is a lot of interesting developments here, including start-ups of space firms, or those involved in related fields.
Last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison came down here to officiate in an event related to the space industry. A few weeks before that, I was fortunate also to attend a Space Jobs Forum, at The University of Adelaide.
The panel members included:

  • Dr Andy Thomas – Adelaide astronaut (Australia’s first astronaut);
  • Matthew Tetlow – Inovor Technologies founder;
  • Flavia Tata Nardini – CEO and cofounder of Fleet Space Technologies;
  • Dr John Culton – Associate Professor Off-earth /resources at the university; and
  • Katie Hulmes – General Manager Transformation at Oz Minerals.

Local journalist Tory Shepherd interviewed the panel members on how the space industry was developing here in South Australia as well as opportunities that awaited the young people in school, both at the secondary and tertiary levels.
There were high school students present at the forum and they had the chance to ask Thomas and other panel members about their thoughts or dreams of working in space, or in the space industry.
In the next two sections, I share with you parts of the discussion at that forum.

Thomas talks about science and space
Here, I list Thomas’ answers to two questions that were directed at him by Shepherd.
lGetting kids interested in Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and excited about space subjects when they are young is vital. Do you think there’s more we can do (here in Australia)?
Thomas’ answer: “I have seen statistics that say if you don’t capture young persons’ interest in mathematics and science before the seventh grade, you’ll lose them, they’re gone! They grow up as teenagers and have other interests. We need education programmes that inspire young people.
“Having a space agency (here in Adelaide) and having companies like those started by the other members of this panel show these young people that there are exciting things you can do … Just imagine how you’d feel if you saw a video downlinked from orbit and you saw a satellite with a component that you’d built. Just think about the excitement that would offer a young person.”
lIf a student were to ask you: What should I do now to get to where you are? What advice will you give?
Thomas’ answer: “I did not really start pursuing a career as an astronaut until I was in my 30s. I think if I had to do it again, I would do it sooner.
“The message I give to young people is: Explore what’s out there and find something you like. The most important thing is to do something you like doing, because if you like it, you’re going to be good at that. And seize the opportunities that come with that.”

Nardini urges students to build stuff
Another member of the panel responded to some questions and students may find these interesting.
(Nardini is the CEO and cofounder of Fleet Space Technologies here in Adelaide. The firm is a number of new start-ups that are breaking into the space industry which is taking off here. Originally from Italy, Nardini graduated in aerospace before becoming a space engineer. Her firm builds satellites and sends them into space.)
lWhat do you look for in graduates (who are looking for a job in your firm)?
Nardini’s answer: “My advice to students is build stuff.
“I have hired people by asking them, ‘What have you built?’
“I mean, ‘What have you built outside of university?’
“Most of my employees are software people and they can build anything …
“I hired this shy girl … She didn’t want to talk in the interview … I asked her: ‘What did you build?’
“Then she said, ‘I went to a group and they’ve been working for month to build this very complex app and they couldn’t do it. And I built it and it took me a week and it was amazing – and we had 3,000 users in the first week.’
“I (Nardini) said: ‘You’re hired!’”
She continued on to say: “If you are in university, no matter what, build stuff. And then tell the stories to your employers (when you go for your interview).”
lWhat do you think about establishing civilisation elsewhere (as on Mars)? Can you picture it?
Nardini’s answer: “I can picture it. Earth is pretty awesome … Mars is quite dry … It is not the best place to go and live … But why are we doing it? …
“It is clear that we will get there – in 10 years, 15 years or 20 years’ time. What I found fascinating though is … if you look at the Apollo mission (man on moon mission) and how much money that went into it at that time – the thing I love the most about what happened then was how many patents and ideas were developed during the programme and how many of them helped earth … All the industries benefited from the knowledge that was acquired from that programme.”
My thoughts during the talk
Some thoughts that that the Space Jobs Forum triggered in me included: If you can sustain life on Mars or the moon, you can better sustain life on earth – in the desert, at the Polar Regions or up on the Himalayas ridges.
Some aspects that would be improved in such a programme will involve appropriate generation and use of energy, capturing and recycling water, growing food for consumption and culturing plants to recycle oxygen.
Next week: Listening to views of famous authors

  • Thomas Hukahu is an Australia Awards student at The University of Adelaide.

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