Kathryn Ryan Cordell Thornton

Kathryn Ryan Cordell Thornton is a noted American scientist that was selected by NASA in 1984 to fill the role of astronaut. Now retired, Dr. Thornton is currently the Associate Dean for Graduate Programs at the University of Virginia in the Department of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the director at the University’s Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education.

Thornton was born August 17, 1952 in Montgomery, Alabama to William and Elizabeth Cordell. She was adopted and attended school in Montgomery. She graduated in 1970 from Sidney Lanier High School. Continuing her academics and her focus on physics, she attended Auburn University and attained her Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1974. Pushing further at the same university, she worked towards and received her Master’s in physics in 1977. She was not satisfied academically, so she enrolled in the University of Virginia and completed her Doctorate of Philosophy in Physics in 1979. Thornton’s ability was recognized by each of the universities and she graduated with honors from Sigma Pi Sigma, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.

With the completion of Dr. Thornton’s PhD, she was selected to receive a NATO Postdoctoral Fellowship which allowed her to continue her research at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. Thornton spent a year on her research before returning to Charlottesville, Virginia in 1980. She accepted a position as a physicist at the United States Army Foreign Science and Technology Center.

NASA selected Thornton in May of 1984. She completed her year of training and was eligible to be assigned missions by July of 1985. Dr. Thornton completed four flights before her retirement including STS-33, STS-49, STS-61 and STS-73. She held various technical positions throughout the department such as flight software verification in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL), member of the Vehicle Integration Test Team (VITT), and a spacecraft communicator.

STS-33 was Thornton’s first flight. She held the position of mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. The flight launched on November 22, 1989 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The main mission of the Shuttle was to carry Department of Defense payloads as well as secondary commodity. Discovery completed 79 orbits and returned on November the 27th to Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Her second flight lasted almost twice as long beginning on May 7, 1992. Thornton was a crew member of the STS-49 mission that launched aboard the new Space Shuttle Endeavor. Since it was the first flight of the shuttle, the crew’s first mission was the initial test flight of the craft. The crew also performed four space walks to retrieve, repair and then return the International Telecommunications Satellite (INTELSAT). During the space walks the crew demonstrated and critiqued multiple tasks that would have to be completed to assemble the Space Station Freedom. Dr. Thornton’s personal contribution was on the last spacewalk. The Endeavor orbited 141 times over 213 hours before returning the Edwards Air Force Base on May 16th.

Space Shuttle Endeavor was utilized in Thornton’s third mission, STS-61, on December 2, 1993. The shuttle launched from the Kennedy Space Center with a mission of servicing and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The crew not only completed their mission but set a record in the number of successful spacewalks during a mission which held until Expedition 14 surpassed the accomplishment. The HST was retrieved, repaired, serviced and returned in five spacewalks completed by four astronauts including Thornton. After 163 orbits and 4.4 million miles in 11 days, the Endeavor returned to Kennedy Space Center on December 13th.

Thornton saved her longest flight for her fourth and final mission. On October 20, 1995, Dr. Thornton served as a payload commander of the United States Microgravity Laboratory mission STS-73 aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Within this pressurized laboratory, the crew studied materials science, combustion science, the physics of fluids, and biotechnology through completing multiple experiments. After 256 orbits and 6 million miles completed in 15 days, 21 hours, 52 minutes and 21 seconds, the Columbia returned to the Earth on November 5, 1995.

Dr. Thornton logged 40 days, 15 hours and 14 minutes in space, including 21 hours of extravehicular activity (EVA), before retiring from NASA.

Image Caption: Kathryn C. Thornton (Ph.D.), NASA Astronaut (missions STS-33, STS-49, STS-61, STS-73). Credit: NASA/Wikipedia