Meet an astronaut

Published on August 30th, 2011
Meet an astronaut

Don has been on four space missions, has spent 44 days in space and has flown all the way around the earth about 700 times. This year, he flew (on a plane) to South Africa, where we got a chance to meet him.

What made you decide to be an astronaut?
I’ve wanted to be an astronaut ever since I was six years old. I watched the launch of the first American in space on TV and said, “I want to do that.” I didn’t know what I needed to do to become an astronaut, but seeing that moment on TV motivated me to do my best in school so I could have the best possible chance to become an astronaut one day.

Was it easy to become an astronaut?
It took a lot of time and hard work, but my determination paid off in the end. After school, I got a bachelor’s degree in physics, which is the mimimum requirement to get into NASA. But I figured that if that’s the minimum, it’s not good enough to get in, so I went on and got a masters degree and, eventually, a doctorate in engineering.

NASA only recruits new astronauts every two or three years, and the first time I applied they turned me down. Two years later, they turned me down again. A few years later, I made the final 100, got through the interview, passed the medical … and then they turned me down for the third time.

That night, I cried and said, “Forget this. They don’t want me. They’ve turned me down three times, and it’s clearly time for me to do something else with my life.” The next morning, I got up and the first thought that came into my head was, “I still want to be an astronaut.” So I moved to Houston, Texas, where NASA is located, and I got a job as an engineer on the space programme, trying to get closer to my dream.

For the fourth time, I applied to become a NASA astronaut, and I went through the interview and medical again. A few months went by, and then one day they called me and said, “We’re not sure if you’re still interested in becoming an astronaut, but your application’s been accepted.” So I calmly said yes, hung up the phone and screamed. I was 35 years old when I got in, and I was 39 when I first flew into space.

What advice do you have for learners?
You’ve got to find what you want to do and work hard at that. Some careers will take a while, but that’s okay. Don’t be discouraged, never give up, and don’t listen to people who say you can’t do it. And above all, don’t give up on your dream – stay focused and work hard in school and your dream can come true.
Remember to work hard in all your subjects, because you don’t know what you’re going to end up doing or what subjects and skills you might need. I didn’t know what it took to be an astronaut, but I knew that I wanted to do well.

What was it like in outer space?
When I first looked back at the earth, I remember thinking, “Wow! Everybody needs to see this.” For the first time, I saw the planet as a whole rather than as separate countries or continents. I remember one time while we were up there, people were burning the rainforests in South America to make space for agricultural land, and we could see the whole continent under a layer of smoke.
We’re all on this planet together, and everything we do here on earth affects the whole planet. Did you know that the rainforests in South America use dust from the Sahara desert in Africa as a nutrient source?

I also remember realising how fragile our planet is – down here, the sky seems to go on forever, but the atmosphere is really such a tiny, thin layer that protects all the life on earth.

It also takes a while to get used to the fact that everything floats in space. If you turn a cup of water upside down, it’ll just stay inside the cup because gravity isn’t there to pull it downwards. If you cry, your tears don’t roll down your cheeks – they’ll just form two blobs of water around your eyes until you wipe them away.

How do you go to the toilet if there’s no gravity?
There are giant fans in the bowl of the toilet, which create a vacuum to pull the waste matter down. There are also two bars that clamp over your legs so you don’t float right off the toilet!

What are your favourite gadgets?
My iPod and my laptop.

Did you know? It takes only 8,5 minutes for a spaceship to get from the earth’s surface into orbit, but this super-short trip requires a whopping two million litres of fuel!

Fast fact: When a spaceship is in orbit, it travels at 28 000 km/h. Every day, the astronauts inside get to see 16 sunrises and sunsets.

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