Book Review: ‘Orbit of Discovery’ salutes the Buckeye astronauts

WASHINGTON — Ring up one well deserved thumbs up for the Buckeye State.

A popular book by NASA astronaut Dr. Don A. Thomas chronicles a group of Ohioans who paved the way in aviation and space, and includes an up close look at his own flight aboard space shuttle Discovery.

A four-time space shuttle astronaut, Thomas describes the story first hand as his all-Ohio flight crew overcame a troublesome woodpecker to fly one of the space agency’s “more important” missions in Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission.

The 1995 shuttle mission was set to become America’s 100th human space flight, however an unexpected delay by nature forced an interesting turn of events resulting in a humorous outcome.

“I wanted to share this story because I always thought STS-70 was a cool story — it’s the woodpecker flight, it’s the all-Ohio mission,” Thomas recounted to this aerospace journalist at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Dulles, Virginia. “It wasn’t the sexiest mission in the world. We didn’t fix Hubble (Telescope), we didn’t build the space station. We deployed a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) that replaced the one lost on Challenger so I thought this was an important mission.”

As the astronaut and I stood next to NASA’s third space worthy orbiter, Thomas pointed out the symbolism above as he pointed to the massive TDRS mock-up hanging high above Discovery in the Smithsonian hanger and exclaimed, “This was our STS-70 mission — Discovery with TDRS high above her.”

Poised with Discovery as a fitting backdrop during our interview, Don reflects how he and his crew prepared to launch the massive TDRS satellite. Today, the spacecraft remains in geo-stationary orbit as an on orbit spare, ready to go to work if another TDRS fails.

Published by the University of Akron (OH) Ringtaw Books, the 406-page hardbound book takes you into the mind of a veteran astronaut as he describes his time as an astronaut training for the STS-70 mission. Thomas also narrates his flight aboard the space shuttle with interesting details and fun anecdotes.

The book places the reader on the flight deck of Discovery as we mentally join the crew of five as they prepare to deploy the massive tracking satellite. Later, we learn how the crew begins their day in the small quarters of the middeck.

The Cleveland native discusses his crew’s disappointment as their flight to deploy the huge communications satellite is delayed by a Northern Flicker Woodpecker who single handily held up the mission by pecking over 200 holes into their space shuttle’s massive external fuel tank.

The book’s candid discussion on how a wayward woodpecker forced Discovery back to the assembly building for necessary repairs sets the stage for some comedic flare by mission control once they arrived on orbit and deployed TDRS G.

Co-written by journalist Mike Bartell, Orbit of Discovery gives the average reader an insightful look into Thomas’ feelings and thoughts as he describes the dramatic lift-off, and includes the pros and cons on what floating in microgravity feels like.

“When I flew on STS-70, it was my second mission and the first time I launched up on the flight deck,” Thomas recalled during our interview. “To be on the flight deck, I had a small mirror on my knee and I could look out the window and into the (launch pad) flame pit.”

Thomas continued, “To watch the engines start up, and to watch with such violence the flame and smoke shooting out of the flame pit… here I am about 150-feet above watching it and I think my jaw dropped, and I thought, ‘Look at what’s going on back there’.”

I asked Don if he thought all the woodpecker humor became too cheesy. “Not too cheesy, we all enjoyed it on the crew,” he said. “We got a big laugh out of it. We weren’t too embarrassed by it and we decided to embrace it. Once we deployed the satellite, it was open season on woodpeckers and the jokes just flowed afterwards.”

The book notes with statistics the Ohio astronauts of yesteryear through the current ones flying today. Ohio Senator John Glenn, America’s first human to orbit earth, takes to pen to illustrate a beautifully written foreword giving great insight into the state’s historic aviators. Glenn’s thoughts were written three years prior to his passing.

Among the 26 notable Ohio astronauts included are: Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot upon the moon; Dr. Judy Resnik, America’s second woman in space and the first female to fly aboard Discovery; and Dr. Sunny Williams who holds the most time in space by an Ohioan, 322 days, and the most time spacewalking by a female, nearly 51 hours.

The book also gives a tip of the hat to the two Ohio brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who left their home in Dayton, Ohio in 1902 for the winds at Kitty Hawk. The pair later soared into the history books on December 17, 1903.

Orbit of Discovery is now in book stores, and also available via Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Dr. Thomas pointed out that visitors to his web site can purchase the book and have it signed by him.


Loaded with thirty-two pages of colorful images, including NASA and private crew photographs, Orbit of Discovery is a treasure chest of incredible memories giving the reader an inside track on what it took to fly aboard humankind’s greatest flying machine ever built.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)