Astronaut to launch book signing at Packo’sWritten by Matt Liasse | | email@example.com
In 1961, when Don Thomas was in elementary school, his class was brought into the gymnasium to watch as Alan Shepard became the first American being launched into space. He decided that day he wanted to do the same.
“The first time I had the idea of being an astronaut, I was about 6 years old,” Thomas said. “As soon as I watched that launch, I knew I wanted to do that. I went back to my classroom after we saw the launch and I just looked out the window all morning.”
Thomas thought about space exploration throughout high school and college and in 1994, at the age of 39, he made his dream a reality on the space shuttle Columbia.
“It was a long time, a lot of hard work, and when it happened, it was an unbelievable moment,” Thomas said. “On my very first mission, I’m lying on my back inside the shuttle … and everything starts shaking when the engines ignite, and when I felt the push in my back, which meant that we lifted two solid rocket boosters and we’re freeing the launch pad, I can feel that acceleration. I had my helmet on, visor down; I was screaming inside my helmet, ‘Yahoo, let’s go!’ It was the dream of my life taking place right in front of my eyes.”
Thomas’ excitement didn’t wear off that day.
“I remember, during that mission, it might have been a week later, at one point of just looking out the window, and I was almost overcome with emotion. I had tears in my eyes,” Thomas said.
Thomas wrote about his experiences in his new book, written with Toledo journalist Mike Bartell, “Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission.” He relived the experiences while doing research, reading newspaper clippings and digging up memories.
Thomas, along with Bartell, will do a book signing at Tony Packo’s Café, 1902 Front St. from 4:30-7p.m. Feb. 21. Copies of his book will be available for purchase at the event.
From Ohio to space
The book’s teaser says “the desire to beat gravity is a Buckeye tradition.” It lists Orville and Wilbur Wright, from Dayton, John Glenn, from Cambridge, Ohio and Neil Armstrong, from Wapakoneta, Ohio as examples.
Thomas, a Cleveland-native, never forgot his Ohio roots as he traveled in and out of the Earth’s gravitational pull. He showed his pride in a number of ways.
During his first mission, he brought a Cleveland Browns banner onboard. On two later missions in 1999, he brought a “Countdown to Kickoff” watch onboard, which counted down the seconds until the same team kicked off.
“I grew up in Cleveland; I’m a big Browns fan. I’m just proud to be from Ohio,” Thomas said.
Ohio in space
In 1995, the STS-70 (Space Transportation System) mission on the space shuttle Discovery involved an all-Ohio crew, which Thomas’ book details the most.
On the mission, the crew was responsible for deploying a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite from the shuttle. These devices, about the size of a school bus, are important to our infrastructure, Thomas said; every image from scientific satellites is relayed through these devices.
Four of the five crew members, including Thomas, Nancy Currie, Tom Henricks and Mary Ellen Weber, were from Ohio coincidentally. The fifth member, Kevin Kregel, was from Amityville, N.Y., so the governor of Ohio at the time, George Voinovich, made Kregel an honorary Ohio citizen.
“It was a lot of fun,” Thomas said. “Back when I was flying then, Ohio had more astronauts … than any other state. I think nowadays New York state has surpassed Ohio, but think about that: Ohio is No. 2 in the number of astronauts that have gone into space. It’s pretty incredible.”
The mission has become known as the “woodpecker flight” because it was delayed for repairs after a woodpecker gouged holes in the shuttle. The Cleveland Indians Baseball Song was played most mornings as wake-up calls, but once, the “Woody Woodpecker” theme song was played.
“If I’m talking to people and mention I was on the STS-70, no one knows what that means. But if I told them I was on the ‘woodpecker flight,’ [they say], ‘Oh yeah, I remember that one,’” Thomas said.
Thomas wanted to write about the mission, not because it is his proudest achievement, but because it was the most fun.
From space to Toledo
Thomas often refers to Toledo as his “second home.”
“I just fell in love with the town,” Thomas said.
After the STS-70 mission, Thomas spoke to students at Rossford’s Glenwood Elementary School. The same day, he visited Tony Packo’s on Front Street for a bun signing.
“When they gave me my schedule, there was something on there that said ‘hot dog bun signing at Tony Packo’s.’ I had never heard of anything like that,” Thomas said. “[But] when I got there, it was such a great, fun night.”
His signed bun is currently at the Front Street location.
On the STS-83 and STS-94 missions, both in 1997 on the shuttle Columbia, he brought cans of Tony Packo’s sauce on board, and made hot dogs while in space. He recalls waking up a fellow crew member with just the smell of hot dogs cooking.
“He got up, got a hot dog with us and then he went back to bed,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he eats at Tony Packo’s Café every time he’s in the area, including this month.
Inspiring on Earth
Thomas, now retired from NASA, works with outreach programs at Towson University in Baltimore, Md. He hopes to inspire kids the way he was inspired in kindergarten.
“These will be kids that are going to grow up and be the ones going to the asteroids and landing on Mars,” Thomas said. “Just to spark that enthusiasm … you light a fire under someone and let them go.”
Tags: astronaut, Cambridge, CLeveland Browns, Dayton, Don Thomas, Glenwood Elementary School, homas, John Glenn, Kevin Kregel, Nancy Currie, NASA, Neil Armstrong, Orville and Wilbur Wright, shuttle Columbia, STS-70 (Space Transportation System) mission, STS-83, STS-94, Toledo journalist Mike Bartell, Tom Henricks and Mary Ellen Weber, Tony Packo's, Wapakoneta, “Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission”