NASA astronaut speaks to engineers about breaking barriers in her field

Kathryn Thornton
Former NASA astronaut Kathryn Thornton speaks at the Engineers Week dinner at Sweet Briar College on Feb. 25, 2016.

If you’ve ever wondered what one might do for fun while orbiting Earth, former astronaut Kathryn Thornton has some ideas. One of them: Playing air hockey with vitamin pills.

Thornton, now a professor at the University of Virginia, spoke to a full house of area engineers, educators and members of the business community yesterday at Sweet Briar’s Wailes Lounge. Her talk was part of the region’s annual dinner to celebrate National Engineers Week, and it was the first time the College hosted the event.

Sponsored by the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, the dinner also included Sweet Briar engineering students, faculty, staff and alumnae. Sweet Briar is one of just two women’s colleges in the country to offer an ABET-accredited degree in engineering.

As the lobby filled with anticipation and attendees, Thornton took a few minutes to sit down for an interview. A physicist by training, she was invited to Sweet Briar by her friend T.C. Scott, who teaches in the College’s engineering department.

Hank Yochum at Wailes Center
Wyllie Program director Hank Yochum welcomes area engineers and students.

Thornton has taught mechanical and aerospace engineering at UVa since 1996.

She made four space flights between 1989 and 1995, logging more than 975 hours — one on Space Shuttle Discovery, two on Endeavour and one on Columbia.

The question on everyone’s mind — “What’s it like to be in space?” — had a simple answer.

“Floating is the best part,” she said, her eyes beaming. “It’s kind of like a dream. You can take pictures, but you can’t bring that back with you.”

The first time she saw Earth from space was a bit of a surprise, she admitted.

“It was amazingly big and bright.”

When Thornton was a child, becoming an astronaut was not an option. “They were all men,” she said.

But that didn’t keep her from pretending to be one when playing with her five brothers and sisters — armed with skateboards, walkie-talkies and a tape recorder. That was in 1964.

Twenty years later, a phone call from NASA made it a reality.

There had been several women astronauts before her, beginning with Sally Ride’s first flight in 1983, but women were still a minority in 1989. Yet, that really didn’t pose a problem, Thornton said.

Nadirah Abdus-Sabur
Sweet Briar College engineering student Nadirah Abdus-Sabur ’16

“Everyone was valued for what they brought to the table. It was like being on a camping trip with brothers.”

Thornton believes the same theory holds true for other male-dominated fields today, including engineering. Women have something different to offer, she said, and what they can bring to the table will empower the profession.

Thornton’s various assignments at NASA included flight software verification in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL), serving as a team member of the Vehicle Integration Test Team (VITT) at the Kennedy Space Center, and as a spacecraft communicator.

The recipient of numerous awards, among them the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement, Thornton was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010.

Would she go back to space today if she could?

“In a heartbeat.”

Read more about Thornton’s career and her space travels here.