Space will become militarised; humans may never colonise other planets; and Australia should have its own space program.
These are some of the thoughts that Australia's only astronaut, Andy Thomas, left with UWA's Fogarty Scholars during his two-day visit to Perth last month.
His visit was initiated by the Fogarty Foundation, a philanthropic and education foundation which engages leaders in their fields to speak about their achievements and their passions and encourages others to take leading roles in the community.
Dr Thomas spoke to more than a thousand students and their teachers at events co-ordinated with UWA, Curtin University of Technology, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), Curtin University, Scitech, Aspire UWA, the UWA/WA Department of Education teachers' enrichment program (SPICE) and the US Consul General.
His most intimate chat was an hour with 40 Fogarty Scholarship winners who asked him about the value of postgraduate study, how the passion for the US space program could be reignited and what he did in his spare time on the Space Shuttle.
"I loved postgraduate study," he told them "I encourage anybody who has the opportunity to go for it. To be rid of the structures of undergraduate study and, for the only time in your life, to be able to focus on just one thing is a real privilege."
Dr Thomas did his PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Adelaide, where he became close friends with former UWA lecturer Dr Michael Norton.
Dr Norton arranged Dr Thomas' first visit to UWA in 1996 and gave him the tiny silk UWA flag which the astronaut took into space with him, and which is now displayed at the UWA Visitors Centre.
He said interest in the US space program had dwindled because the education system had failed to ascribe value to it. "The wider community just doesn't see the value of it," Dr Thomas said.
He said that space would definitely become militarised. "There are no two ways about it. It gives you great strategic benefit. That's why Australia should get its own space program. Satellites are the best way to ensure national security, to protect Australia's vast shoreline, to give access to information for environmental studies and so much more."
Dr Thomas said he could not see humans getting any further than Mars. "It may be that it is just not physically possible to go any further. We don't even know the technology that might be needed.
"We have got to take care of the Earth. It's irresponsible for people to say that we will eventually go somewhere else to live."
During Space Shuttle flights, Dr Thomas listened to Beethoven, Bach and the Beatles. "While we keep to Greenwich Mean Time, we actually experience 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours," he told the students. "When Paul McCartney heard that I'd played Here Comes the Sun on the shuttle, he invited me onto the stage at one of his concerts."
Dr Thomas has flown four space flights, including a long duration flight with Russian cosmonauts on the Russian Space Station Mir for 130 days.
"That was the best flight because it was long and the pace slows and you can savour the experience," he said. "I also enjoyed the intellectual challenge of learning Russian."
He told the students not to rely on chance, not to wait for a good opportunity to come along. "Make it happen. Be tenacious. Find out what needs to be done to achieve your goal and do it. You will be amazed at what doors will be unlocked."
Published in UWA News, 4 October 2010