Sweet Briar has announced that former NASA astronaut Kathryn Thornton will deliver the keynote address during the College’s 108th commencement exercises on May 13, 2017.
Thornton, now director of the aerospace engineering program and a professor in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at the University of Virginia, made four space flights between 1989 and 1995 — one on Space Shuttle Discovery, two on Endeavour and one on Columbia. A physicist by training, she holds a master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and a bachelor’s from Auburn University.
NASA selected her for the shuttle program in May 1984. During her time with the agency, she logged more than 975 hours in space, including 21 hours performing work outside the vehicle, according to UVa’s website.
Thornton’s first flight was as a mission specialist on the crew of STS-33, which launched at night from Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard Discovery. The mission carried Department of Defense payloads and other secondary payloads.
Her second flight in 1992 on the crew of STS-49 was the maiden flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour. During the mission, the crew performed four extravehicular activities — also known as EVAs or space walks — to retrieve, repair and deploy the International Telecommunications Satellite (INTELSAT), and to demonstrate and evaluate numerous EVA tasks to be used for the assembly of Space Station Freedom.
In 1993, Thornton was again a specialist EVA crew member aboard Endeavour on the STS-61 Hubble Space Telescope servicing and repair mission. During the 11-day flight, Hubble was captured and restored to full capacity through five space walks by four astronauts.
On her final mission in 1995, Thornton served aboard Columbia on STS-73 as the payload commander of the second United States Microgravity Laboratory mission. The mission focused on materials science, biotechnology, combustion science, the physics of fluids, and other scientific experiments housed in the pressurized Spacelab module.
Since leaving NASA, Thornton has served on several NASA review committees and task groups, including the Return to Flight Task Group that evaluated NASA’s work in meeting goals set by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board prior to resumption of shuttle flights. In 2008, she co-chaired a workshop at Stanford University titled “Examining the Vision for Space Exploration,” and subsequently testified on the results before the Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the U.S. House of Representatives.
She served on the National Research Council Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, and as a member or co-chair of several council studies. She is on the board of the Space Foundation and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and also is co-author on Pearson’s Interactive Science, a K-8 science program.
Thornton is the recipient of numerous awards, including NASA Space Flight Medals, the Explorer Club Lowell Thomas Award, the National Astronautics Association Robert J. Collier Trophy, the Freedom Foundation Freedom Spirit Award and the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement. She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010.
Thornton spoke at Sweet Briar in February 2016 during the region’s annual Engineers Week Banquet.