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Don Thomas launches book about ‘woodpecker’ space shuttle mission

Don ThomasDon Thomas is a materials engineer, not an ornithologist, but he can tell you a thing or two about woodpeckers.

In 1995, as he and four other astronauts prepared for a routine mission aboard space shuttle Discovery, a northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) drilled 205 holes into the insulation covering the shuttle’s external fuel tank. The delay was especially disappointing to Thomas’s fellow Ohioans, who were looking forward to what had been billed the All-Ohio mission. That designation had required a bit of arm-twisting on Thomas’ part. At his request, then-Ohio Gov. George Voinovich granted honorary citizenship to the crew’s lone non-Buckeye. But thanks to one very persistent bird, many Americans still remember it as the “woodpecker mission.”

Thomas writes all about it in his new book, Orbit of Discovery: the All Ohio Space Shuttle Mission, and recently sat down with us to discuss that and more.

Don Thomas book coverWhat inspired you to write Orbit of Discovery: the All Ohio Space Shuttle Mission?

About 550 people have flown in space, so few that I felt I had a responsibility to document the flight and share the story. This particular mission, STS-70, was pretty “vanilla” by NASA standards—we were deploying a communications satellite and doing some secondary experiments.

I wanted to cover every aspect of the mission, including details of day-to-day life in a weightless environment. Everybody wants to know about the space shuttle bathroom, but I also explain what we ate, how we shampooed, exercised and even what music we listened to. (Fact: inserting contact lenses is easier in space than on Earth.) I also wanted to recognize the other members of the All-Ohio crew and the NASA ground team at the Kennedy Space Center. It took a lot of people to put us into orbit and return us safely to Earth.

Were Ohioans specifically chosen for this mission?

No, though Ohio seems to produce more than its share of astronauts since John Glenn first orbited the Earth in 1962. Nancy Currie, Tom Hendricks, Mary Ellen Weber and I hail from Ohio, but Kevin Kregel is a New Yorker. I phoned Gov. George Voinovich’s office and got transferred a few times before somebody assured me that the governor could proclaim Kevin an honorary Ohioan for the purpose of calling STS-70 the All-Ohio Space Shuttle mission. Gov. and Mrs. Voinovich came to Florida to see the launch and afterward hosted a dinner in our honor. They were very proud and supportive.

Northern Flicker woodpecker

The Northern Flicker woodpecker

What about that pesky woodpecker?

A love-crazed male woodpecker grounded our flight for a month. He’d mistaken the 154-foot tall external fuel tank for a dead tree limb and proceeded to tunnel into the foam insulation in order to create a nest and attract a female. Northern flicker nests typically run more than a foot deep, and the insulation was only three inches thick. When his beak hit the metal, he’d just move to another part of the tank. NASA tried patching the holes on the launch pad, but eventually decided to return the shuttle to the Vehicle Assembly Building. The mission became noteworthy for being the only space shuttle mission ever to be delayed by a bird. We even adopted Woody Woodpecker as a mascot; everybody managed to find the humor in it.

Were there any unusual occurrences during the mission?

We did have an encounter with a micrometeorite that left a little impact crater in one window—a reminder that there’s a lot of debris in space. Other than that, everything worked perfectly. It was what NASA calls a “clean” mission. The communications satellite we deployed remains operational after more than 18 years. It’s still used extensively for relaying the spectacular images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, among other things.

Don Thomas NASA photo

Don Thomas’ official NASA photo

Do you miss the adventure of space exploration?

Sure, but I have plenty of ground-based exploration going on at the Hackerman Academy. Since I became director in 2007, we’ve hosted 157 Saturday Morning Science presentations that attracted more than 35,000 attendees. Forty-five percent are girls, which is great. I also visit 70 schools per year to talk about my NASA career and to present programs designed to get kids interested in math and science careers. In my six years with the academy I’ve been to about 300 Maryland schools and reached about 70,000 students. Education can be an adventure in itself. I enjoy working with our young students in Maryland every bit as much as I enjoyed flying in space earlier in my career.

Do you hold a grudge against woodpeckers?

Not at all. In fact, I have the utmost respect and admiration for them. I hang special woodpecker suet in my backyard and enjoy watching them feed. I recently purchased a new birdhouse designed especially for woodpeckers and look forward to having more woodpeckers for neighbors in the spring.

Thomas’ book, Orbit of Discovery: the All Ohio Space Shuttle Mission, debuts Tuesday, Dec. 17, and is available in bookstores and Amazon

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