Spending a few hours with a NASA astronaut who´s interested in V-2s is a great reminder of what White Sands Missile Range has done for America´s space program.
Dr. Donald Thomas, NASA astronaut, was at the missile range Jan. 23, 1995 to return a White Sands coin he had taken into space last summer. As he spoke to range employees and White Sands School students, his enthusiasm for his job and his appreciation of the missile range was evident.
"I was six years old when Alan Shepard went up. That was the I day realized I wanted to be an astronaut," the 39-year-old said. "I didn´t know what an astronaut was or what they did, but every day since then I´ve had these dreams of going into space."
His dream was realized on July 8, 1994, as he and the rest of the seven-person crew aboard the space shuttle Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral for their 15 day, 6.1 million-mile journey around the earth.
Claiming to be a V-2 buff, Thomas visited White Sands Missile Range as part of his vacation last March. After touring some of the historic sites on range, he agreed to take a 40th anniversary commemorative coin donated by the White Sands Pioneer Group along on his first flight into space. He volunteered to relate is experiences to the White Sands community when he returned the coin.
Thomas took his audiences from his pre-flight breakfast to his post-flight walk around the orbiter. He talked about the on-board experiments, the food they had to eat, and, because it´s the first question everyone asks, he even had a slide of the shuttle´s bathroom. He had slides of a sleeping compartment, of a hurricane where the calm in the eye of the storm allowed the blue water to show through and fires burning around the planet to clear rain forests in South America or to prepare the fields for next year´s crops in Africa and Australia.
About six seconds before launch, while the shuttle is still tied down, the main engines ignite. He said, "The whole shuttle starts shaking and you´re thinking ´Wow, this is going to be some ride´ and you haven´t left the ground yet!
"At launch the two solid rocket engines light and the shaking really starts. The sensation for me was like somebody was pushing into my back, just shoving me into the air," he explained as he leaned backwards and thrust his hand straight up.
While trying to relate what space is like, Thomas admitted words just can´t describe it. "It´s almost embarrassing, the noises that come out of you, the gee-whiz stuff you say -- wow, that´s cool, that´s neat. You find yourself breathless."
One of the things he felt was most visually impressive was the rim of the earth. "The atmosphere glows blue, like a fluorescent blue, and it´s contrasted with this deep, dark, velvety, glowing blackness of space. That black, contrasted with the blue rim of the earth, is really spectacular."
Thomas is assigned as a mission specialist on STS-70, currently scheduled to launch in June 1995. His job will be to deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite. The ground station for the TDRS System is at the NASA facility in the southwestern portion of the missile range. The system provides communications services for spacecraft, including the shuttle, in low-Earth orbit. Thomas was in the area Monday to tour the facility.
He finished with, "For all the support you´ve given shuttle missions in the past, for the support you´re going to give me during my next flight, and for everything you´ve done for the space program, I thank you."
He returned the coin, and gave the missile range a plaque with an autographed crew photo, plus an American flag and STS-65 patch which had flown during his mission. The items will be displayed at the White Sands Museum.
Thomas´ visit was the first in a series of events to be conducted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the missile range.