A Mir Four Months

America's man in space these days is an Australian.

Or at least Australian-born. NASA astronaut Andrew S. W. Thomas, the man left behind when the shuttle Endeavour headed back to Earth, was born 46 years ago in Adelaide, South Australia. A mechanical engineer, he became a naturalized US citizen in 1986, six years before NASA selected him for astronaut training.

Thomas can thank his lucky stars for his current four-month stay aboard the aging Russian space station. The seventh and possibly the last astronaut scheduled to take part in the three-year cooperative effort with Russia, Thomas originally was trained as backup to David Wolf.

But in August, Wolf, who headed back to Earth on the same shuttle flight that carried Thomas to Mir, was bumped up to an earlier mission. The astronaut scheduled to go on that mission was found to be too short to fit into a Russian space suit.

Wolf rocketed into space on the September mission, and Thomas began packing up his books and Beethoven CDs for a January ride to Mir.

"My role was originally as a backup with a very low likelihood of flying," Thomas said before liftoff, "and then the world changed very dramatically for me in a big way."

One of the biggest changes was a quick trip to Russia's Star City cosmonaut base for basic training and cram sessions in the Russian language.

Thomas is working on life science experiments showing the effects on the human body of prolonged space travel. The data he gathers will help in the construction, set to begin this summer, of the US$60 billion international space station, a collaborative project involving the U.S., Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada.

"He's in for the experience of his life," Wolf said of Thomas.

That life so far has included an education at the University of Adelaide, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a doctorate in mechanical engineering; a career as a research scientist with Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a trip into space as payload commander on the Endeavour mission in May 1996.

On this flight, Thomas brought along a lot of baggage - 4,400 pounds, to be exact. In addition to such staples as food, water, clothing, extra storage batteries, and personal items, he arrived with an air conditioner to cool things off and new computer for the Russian outpost in space.

He may well use the computer to play a CD-ROM of Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time, something he also brought along for the ride.

"Entertainment and recreation are very important in a flight like this because of the confinement," Thomas said. The confinement may be particularly hard on Thomas, an athletic man whose after-hours pursuits include horseback riding and jumping, mountain biking, running, and wind surfing.

On of the few hobbies he's planning to pursue on Mir , however, is classical guitar. And he arrived prepared -- with new strings for the space station's guitar.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. AP and Reuters contributed to this report