Former UT lecturer helps Ohio astronaut tell his story

February 19, 2014 | Events, Features, UToday
By Samantha Watson

Orbit coverA week before Dr. Don Thomas, former NASA engineer and astronaut, was scheduled to leave Earth for the second time, he learned his flight would be delayed — because of a woodpecker.

In an effort to make a nest, a woodpecker had drilled 205 holes in the insulation surrounding the fuel tank of Discovery, which was prepared to deliver a 4,900-pound satellite to Earth’s orbit. Repairs were made and crews put large bird statues and balloons around the shuttle until departure July 13, 1995 — more than a month after the original launch date.

Thomas’ book, Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission, talks about his second trip to space on STS-70, the 21st flight of the space shuttle Discovery. All five crewmembers were from Ohio with the exception of Pilot Kevin Kregel, who was from New York but made an honorary Buckeye by former Ohio Gov. George Voinovich for the mission.

The book offers a dynamic look at STS-70, but also at Thomas’ family and his career with NASA, which began in 1988 after he joined the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center as a materials engineer. Thomas became an astronaut in 1991 and has logged more than 1,000 hours in space.

Although writing a book always had been on Thomas’ bucket list, it took 13 years and some help to make it a reality. In 2012, Thomas reached out to Mike Bartell, a lecturer in the UT Department of Communication from 1981 to 2013, and former reporter and editor at The Blade for 35 years.



“Mike was really instrumental in taking an engineer’s diary and crafting it into a book,” Thomas said. “For years it existed on a floppy disk. When I got the box of books from the University of Akron Press in December, I opened the box and my first reaction was, ‘Wow. It’s a book.’”

During his time at The Blade, Bartell created a niche for himself covering NASA’s space program. He had covered the STS-70 mission, and this knowledge along with his experience as both a writer and educator made him the ideal candidate to help Thomas in writing his book.

“A lot of astronauts grew up wanting to be astronauts because of Alan Shepard and John Glenn,” Bartell said. “But while Don was watching television to see what they were doing in space, I was watching how Walter Cronkite covered the space program.”

Bartell, a 1973 UT graduate and recipient of the Student Impact Award in 2012, is retired from The Blade and UT. Thomas is now head of the Willard Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science at Towson University.

Thomas visits about 80 elementary and middle schools each year to encourage the pursuit of careers in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“A piece of me longs to go on another mission, but it takes a lot of training and time away from home,” Thomas said. “I’m really happy with my second career, where I get to help the next generation of astronauts, explorers and scientists. It’s very rewarding for me — it’s my second passion in life. My first passion was space.”

Thomas will have a book signing Friday, Feb. 21, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the original Tony Packo’s, 1902 Front St. Signed copies of his book also are available on his website,

Thomas has three other missions to write about but is not yet sure if he will. He is, however, thinking about writing a children’s book about the woodpecker.

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