Local Woman Former Astronaut

By: Althea Paul
By: Althea Paul

July 15, 2005

With the launch window quickly closing, NASA is working hard to get the shuttle Discovery off the ground. It was just Wednesday, when the crew was suiting up for takeoff when the mission was scrubbed. A local woman knows what this feels like first-hand. She is a former astronaut herself.

"Floating is the best part," said UVa associate dean, Dr. Kathryn Thornton.

The best part that is, of space travel. Before taking on the role of Associate Dean for the university's School of Engineering, Dr. Thornton held the title of NASA astronaut for 11 years. An experience which allowed her to gaze at some pretty spectacular sights.

"Just looking out at the earth and watching it go by and be able to see the land masses that look like a giant map. To be able to see lights at night," she said.

Thornton, who received her masters and doctorate in physics from UVa, flew in four different NASA missions, from 1989 - 1995.

The trips included a mission on board the space shuttle Endeavor in 1993 to service and repair the hubble telescope, and one on shuttle Columbia, a science mission in 1995. With every shuttle mission, Thornton knew there were always risks involved. She started her journeys after the '86 Challenger disaster--something that may have saddened her but never swayed her decision about space.

"Everybody involved in the program knew that there are risks, and they were risks before Challenger, they are risks after Challenger obviously, and there will be risks in the future," said Thornton.

And even with those risks, Thornton believes in space missions, especially that of the current Discovery shuttle.

"It's getting back into space. We've been down for two and a half years," she said.

The associate dean was even in Cape Canaveral when the shuttle was set to blast off.

"It was pretty exciting building up to the first launch, and of course everyone was disappointed when it didn't happen," said the former astronaut.

However, Thornton knows Discovery will be soon be up in space; it's just a matter of time.

Doctor Thornton hopes the shuttle will in fact launch this month so she can head back to Florida to see it before UVa's fall semester begins.

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