We were lucky enough to welcome an astronaut all the way from the Kennedy Space Center to Rough Guides HQ recently, and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
Astronaut Don Thomas has been to space four times on the NASA space shuttles and takes part in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex's Astronaut Encounter program, imparting tales from his space travels to visitors.
We spoke to him about blasting off from Earth, his time in space and the future of travel.
The first time you look out the window once you're in space, I think the reaction of every astronaut is about the same: first there’s this huge gasp. It goes “Aw, wow!”. You just can't believe what you're looking at.
Even though I had seen many pictures of the Earth taken from space – and I had seen the huge IMAX movies with images of Earth – when I saw it with my own eyes, I just gasped.
I was amazed at the blackness of space. It's a darker, richer colour than I'd ever seen before.
And there, right up against the blackness of space, you have the beautiful blue Earth and the thin layer of atmosphere that's protecting us. It looks quite infinite when you're down on the surface, but from above, looking back at the Earth, our atmosphere appears a paper-thin layer. You sense how fragile this planet really is.
I always loved passing over Egypt. To see the Nile River – this bright green pathway cutting through the centre of Egypt – was just spectacular. You see the blue water of the Mediterranean and the brown desert areas. This contrast between brown, green and bright blue was just breathtaking and, because I had visited there on Earth, it was extra special for me to see from space.
Another favourite view that we all had – I think almost all the astronauts on board the shuttle agreed – is passing over the Kennedy Space Center. Every time we would pass over there we’d have our noses to the window, pressed up against the glass, and we'd be looking down saying: “Oh there's our launch pad. There's our landing strip.”
I remember on my first mission, we had launched, and it was a little more than an hour after we'd been in space. I happened to look out the window and I saw Tampa Bay coming up. Just a few seconds later we passed right over the Kennedy Space Center.
As I looked back up at the launch pad, I saw 39A there right, where we had lifted off from an hour and a half earlier. I thought: “I have just been around planet Earth one time and my family is probably stuck in traffic waiting to get back to their hotel after watching the launch."
That really put it all in perspective for me – where I was and what I was doing.
The food is not good, but it's not horrible. It's OK. I tell people I would never go to a restaurant that serves space food. It's all freeze-dried, so it'll stay preserved in that state for a number of years; we don't have refrigerators and freezers up in space.
I think the most popular entertainment for astronauts is looking out the window – and I do this on a commercial airplane flight too. I love sitting near the window and just watching the Earth go by.
The big difference for us in space, instead of on an airplane, is that when you see a city go by the window, it'll take a few minutes. Up in space we’ll see countries and continents go by in that same time.We'll look out at the planet and see features like the top of Mount Everest or the Great Barrier Reef or the Amazon rainforest.
I got to see so many incredible sights – it was always an amazing opportunity to see our planet, to see places and things that I had only read about in books earlier.
Space tourism is definitely coming and we're very, very close to it. I think it's going to be an exciting adventure for everybody who participates. Once we send those first people up there's going to be such a buzz about going into space. I think there's going to be a long line of people who want to get in on that.
The more people that can get up to space to look back at planet Earth, I think the better off we're all going to be. As soon as I had reached orbit and I’m looking out the window, one of the first thoughts I had was: “Boy, I wish my mother could see this, my wife could see it, my brothers and sisters, my friends."
I wanted everybody to see the perspective that I just had. And I say that, if anybody looked out the window just for 10–15 seconds, that would be all it would take to change you forever and how you view planet Earth.
You know NASA packs everything for us, so we don't have to do much thinking. They pack all of our food, all of our clothes, cameras. Everything we could possibly need up there, NASA provides.
I still enjoy travelling on airplanes and flying over continents. I love looking out the window and seeing sights down below. I love flying with a map, so I can try to figure out where we are all the time too. But I do find it a little slow.
Once you've flown on the space shuttle at 18,000mph – and you can orbit the Earth in a mere 90 minutes – sometimes I get a little impatient as it takes multiple hours to cross the Atlantic.
I have to admit that space travel – and my training at NASA – has totally ruined going to an adventure park or theme park. And rollercoasters in particular. I can get on the scariest rollercoaster, you'll strap me in and it's like: "Been there done that."
I think at the top of my list would be the Outback. When I passed over it on the shuttle and looked out the window, I could swear I was flying over Mars. It had the same red-orange soil there. It just looked awesome down there, and so unique, so I've always been fascinated to see it.
Yes, I think the similarity between people who travel on the surface, and those who travel above, is that we want to see new sights. We all want to experience new things in our lives and see new cultures.
Header image Pixabay/CC0