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Issue #1474      29 September 2010

Australia’s first astronaut in space visits Perth

As the football finals season was in full swing in Australia and the corporate media was focusing their attention on the teams and their highly paid and preened players, Australia’s most accomplished astronaut, Dr Andrew Thomas, was coming to Perth to give a public lecture on the future of space travel which would also include a live link to Dr Shannon Walker on the International Space Station (ISS).

Shannon Walker uses a vacuum cleaner during housekeeping operations in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station.

The event was held at Curtin University on September 14, and was attended by a packed audience of over 200 people including several groups of school children from public and private schools, eight of whom had been selected to ask questions of ISS astronaut Dr Walker who co-piloted the shuttle to the ISS.

The sponsors for the event included the Fogarty Foundation, Scitech and also the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research which was considering a site in the state’s midwest 350 kilometres north of Geraldton for the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope that would become home to the world’s biggest science project and its biggest computer.

The connection to the ISS was accomplished through a phone link from Perth to South Australia and then to a location in Argentina which then beamed the link-up to the ISS when the ISS passed overhead.

The presentation by Dr Thomas, who hails from Adelaide in South Australia and has a PhD in mechanical engineering, gave an overview of three of his major missions to space including the preparation for 130 days on board the now defunct MIR space station. He had to learn Russian so that he could train at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, in 1998.

The presentation included a video of every day life on MIR during which he would exercise on a treadmill to militate against the negative effects on the body of long periods in conditions of weightlessness in space. This was a complex and at times amusing procedure to watch as one needed to be placed in a harness in order to remain in contact with the treadmill and therefore allow the muscles to be worked. For long journeys into space this would be vital as such travel would otherwise harm or destroy the bone and muscle functioning of the human body.

Sleeping in conditions of weightlessness presented it own challenges and also required that the sleeping bag be secured with a harness to the floor so that he didn’t bump around the space station while sleeping.

One such long distance mission is on the drawing board – a manned mission to Mars by 2030 to help set up a community on our nearest habitable planet. It is hoped that there is peace and co-operation on Earth while a multi-nation project of this nature is established on another world – and that we have also made progress on saving this planet during that time.

The eight high school students had the opportunity to ask two questions of the astronaut Dr Walker and chose questions on a range of topics including life on the space station, the experiments she conducted, whether she believed in aliens to which she replied that she hadn’t seen any yet but “would like to believe that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.”

After the link-up Dr Thomas described the launch process including footage of the take-off and landing in which people were able to see the forces which have to be dealt with to make this possible and the knowledge and science that enriches humanity’s being in this world as a consequence of these types of missions.

To end the forum, the audience was able to ask questions of Dr Thomas including if he could notice the effects of climate change or global warming over the planet to which he responded that although it was not possible to measure the effects directly of climate change as they were so high up, he could see the damage which human activities were having on the planet. China was often enveloped in smog from its use of coal and the burning of forests in parts of Central America was so thick at times it looked like a war zone and left a trail which extended up to the city of Chicago in the USA.

The younger members of the audience also took the opportunity to ask their celebrity scientist questions and they did not fail to impress Dr Thomas who answered them on particle physics and the subjects one needs to study to be an astronaut.

The presentation by Dr Andrew Thomas, however, did not raise the attention of the mass media the following days apart from the ABC which did a live broadcast. 

Next article – Mexico’s bicentennial is bittersweet

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