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X-STEM – Extreme STEM Symposium

Dr. KathrynThornton

Nominated by:
Kathryn Thornton Univ of Virginia 2014 Nifty Fifty USA Science and Engineering Festival
After 12 Years as a NASA Astronaut, Kathryn Thornton Brings Aerospace Science to Students in Unforgettable Ways!



Selected in 1984 by NASA as an astronaut candidate, Kathryn Thornton would go on to serve 12 notable years with NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston -- a career which would see her become the second American woman to walk in space, in addition to logging 975 hours and more than 16 million miles in orbit as an astronaut on four Shuttle missions.


"And I loved every minute of it!" exclaims Kathryn, a physicist who, since retiring from NASA in 1996, has become known for bringing that same level of enthusiasm to the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science where she is currently a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and will serve as the Academic Dean on the Fall 2013 voyage of Semester at Sea. At the university she teaches the undergraduate course, "Introduction to Aerospace Engineering" each fall.


In this class, her excitement about space exploration and aerospace science shines through -- much to the enjoyment of students. She starts her students off designing and building model rockets. Then they move on to building radio-controlled blimps using helium balloons. The blimps are designed to go head to head in an aggressive competition that ends only when the last blimp is flying solo – all of this taking place on the basketball court of the university's Aquatic and Fitness Center. What's more, students say, Kathryn is not afraid of getting her hands dirty in the process. She's been covered in goo more than once when a student's balloon -- sealed to prevent leaks -- explodes to splatter all over her!


Her class is so popular, the university reports, that typically she has to turn away students. She has also partnered with colleagues to conduct the two-week ExxonMobil Bernard Harris science summer camp for middle school students that is run through the U.Va. Center for Diversity in Engineering.


Kathryn Ryan Cordell Thornton was born in Montgomery, Alabama. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from Auburn University in 1974. In 1977 she went on to receive a Master of Science degree in Physics, and later her Ph.D. in this discipline from the University of Virginia in 1979.


She then accepted a NATO postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, West Germany. A year later, returning to Charlottesville, VA, she began working as a physicist for the U.S. Army Foreign Science and Technology Center. It was then that she ran across an advertisement about NASA's search for astronauts. That ad not only caught her eye, it changed her life.


As an astronaut, Kathryn was a veteran of four space missions (which included 21 hours of extravehicular activities). On her first flight, she was a mission specialist on the crew of STS-33 which launched at night from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on November 22, 1989, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Her second flight, on which she served on the crew of STS-49, took place May 7–16, 1992, on board the maiden flight of the new Space Shuttle Endeavour. It was on this flight she conducted her 8-hour spacewalk, becoming the second American woman to walk in space.

On her third flight, she was a mission specialist EVA (extravehicular activity such as spacewalks) crew member aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on the STS-61 Hubble Space Telescope (HST) servicing and repair mission. And during her final mission from October 20 to November 5, 1995, she served aboard Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-73, as the payload commander of the second United States Microgravity Laboratory mission.

Dr. Thornton was inducted into the prestigious Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010. She is also a member of various professional associations, including: the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the following honor societies: Sigma Pi Sigma, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.


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