Transcript: Space4U podcast, Dr. Kathryn C. Thornton

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello, this is Zakary Watson with Space Foundation, and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the people who make today’s space exploration and global space ecosystem.

Today we are joined by Dr. Kathryn Thornton, a former NASA astronaut and a current Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Selected by NASA in May 1984, Kathryn is a veteran of four space flights in the era of space. Those four flights, including her stents as a spacewalker, repairing in-orbit satellites — including the Hubble space telescope — gave her nearly 1000 hours of space travel.

Since leaving NASA, Dr. Thornton has served on multiple review committees and task groups, including several years on the National Research Council Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board.

She is the recipient of numerous awards, including NASA Space Flight Medals, the Explorer club Lowell Thomas Award, the University of Virginia distinguished alumna award, the Freedom Foundation Freedom Spirit Award, and the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement.

But any of her affiliations we at Space Foundation are most proud is Dr. Thornton’s role on our board of directors since 2010 and as elected Chairwoman since 2020.

Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Thornton. It is wonderful to have you on the podcast.

Growing up, were you always drawn to STEM? And how was that fostered for females in the public school system in Montgomery, Alabama?

Well, you know, it was a long, long time ago when I was in the public school system in Montgomery, Alabama, and it’s, you know, a different place than, than where we all are now. And in fact, girls were not encouraged to do STEM. They were, they could be teachers or nurses. Girls went to college to get a husband, to graduate without one was considered a failure practically.

So I was, I don’t know, I just didn’t get the message, I suppose. You know, I always liked math and science. I liked taking things apart. I grew up with brothers and sisters as well, but I grew up with brothers. So, you know, I, you know, anything they could do, I could do, which was kind of hard on their egos sometimes, but you know, it was not encouraged.

I was kind of a solid. Wow. You know, I did sort of slipped through the filter of girls aren’t supposed to do this. And I know I was the only girl in my physics class in high school and, and most of my physics classes in college, but I had a teacher in high school. He taught chemistry. The year I took it and then he moved to physics the year I took physics.

So, I had him for two years and he was a big influence on my life without actually I think trying to or intending to just, he expected the same for me as from the guys, even though I was the only girl in the class. He probably fostered my interest and persistence in science, more than anybody.

That’s great. Was space in the public school curriculum at that time. Were you introduced to space at all?

No, absolutely not. You know, back in those days, there were only a few astronauts, and they were all guys and they were all test pilots and that was not going to include. So it was, it’s not anything I ever considered back then. I just, I liked science. I liked math, so I sort of stuck with it through college.

Um, after four years of college with a degree in physics, I figured I didn’t know enough to go out into the world. So, I got a master’s degree and then a PhD in physics when they finally made me go out into the world. And, uh, I really lucked into it. I was working for the US Army when I saw an announcement that NASA was selecting the next group of astronauts, and that was the 10th group of astronauts selected.

And I thought, you know, what the heck all they can do is say no. Sally had flown just about the time, I was applying was when Sally Ride was flying. And I also, they also published the qualifications required to apply. And it was just basically normal, healthy people with advanced degrees. In science, math, or engineering.

And I thought, you know, all they can do is say no. And then until they do the dream is alive and well. And when they say no, you go find another fantasy to live and work towards. So it was, you know, for people who work their whole life and plan their whole life to become astronauts it’s, it’s kind of hurtful to them.

When I say that, man, I just stumbled into it. The best thing I ever stumbled into. And that is fantastic. We talk about. Being a pioneer in your industry, Dr. Thornton. That’s incredible. So, to date women make up just over 10% of human space travelers. And as of September 20th, 67 women have flown in space.

Two women were recently aboard Space X, first ever all civilian space mission Inspiration4. How do you think that we improve gender equality and close that gender gap in space exploration? Well, you have to think over the years, there weren’t very many women in the astronaut program in fact, none until 1978.

So, for the first, uh, what is that? Almost 20 years, there were none. And after that time, many of the astronauts were military and test pilots. And so, there was a whole other filter on that group of people that kept the number of women down until, gosh, I guess maybe in the eighties, late eighties and early nineties, we started getting a few women through the military pilot.

So, you know, if you discount those years where it was really some serious filters for women to get into the program, I think it’s opened up quite a bit. If you look at the last few selections, I think there’s been much more equity in men and women selected as an astronaut so, we’re making. It may take decades or generations, but you know, if you don’t give up eventually get that’s great advice with Artemis missions.

NASA has said it wants to land the first woman in the first person of color on the surface of the moon in 2024. This program is named after Greek goddess Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo. How do you think this impacts deep space travel to Mars? That’s an interesting question. And one that I’ve had an opinion on for some time that if we set up a permanent presence on the moon, I think that that will delay us going anywhere else for a generation or two back in the 1980s.

And we were designing the space station. The tagline was, you know, permanent presence in low earth orbit. And sure enough, we got that. So, from the year 2000, for more than 20 years now, we’ve had a permanent presence in low earth orbit, but we haven’t done anything else. We we’ve been stuck in low earth orbit.

I think if we intend to plan a permanent base on the moon, that it will delay us doing anything else. So, I know it’s not popular, but, but my opinion was, if we need to go to the moon to learn, to go to Mars, then we ought to go to the moon and do it. We ought to have objectives. We either have a start date and a stop.

And then pick up and move on because I think the likelihood of us being able to support the permanent presence in low earth orbit a permanent presence on the moon and then continue to explore. I mean, eventually we’ll get there, but I think it will delay it a ways and delay it outside of my lifetime.

And I’d like to see it. Yes, we all would. That’d be great. Is there a particular mission or payload that you worked on that you are most proud of having? No, all the missions, particularly for the mission specialist, all the missions are different, which is awesome. You get to do all kinds of things. I’ve deployed satellites.

I’ve worked on satellites. I’ve done science experiments. I think the one that probably has the most consequence was the first mission to service. It was exciting. It was tense. It was, you know, everything you could want in a, in a space mission, lots of spacewalks. It was great. And now when we finished that mission, we didn’t come back and celebrate.

When we got to earth, even though everything we had done, we could do had been done properly. Everything worked, they were sending data to the ground. All of the things that we trained for to go wrong, didn’t go wrong. But until the pictures came back until the telescope was working at a hundred percent capacity or better.

The mission wasn’t successful unless everybody was successful, it wasn’t successful for anybody. So, we really didn’t relax and let our hair down and celebrate big time until a month later, when we started seeing pictures coming back from Hubble, it was an awesome time. It was exciting. And one thing that, that always brings me back to that is that when I flew that mission, my oldest daughter was 11 years old.

She got her Ph.D. using Hubble data and somewhat connected to that telescope. That’s incredible. What did training look like for that? Can you share a little bit about that? How do you train? What did they put you through training for that mission?

Every other mission you, you do as much as you possibly can on the ground. It’s like we learned in aviation years ago, you fly like you train. And so, we had, uh, simulators and a water tank, a full size telescope, or parts of it anyway, and the water tank where we could do all the EBA procedures, we had the regular shuttle simulator. Um, we flew KC 135 where we can do some zero G and an aircraft a little bit doing that.

We had sort of the beginnings of virtual reality, which I think is used much more extensively now, but I think that was the first time that we’d even looked at it. We use an air bearing floor, so it was kind of like being the hockey puck and an air hockey. And, and all of those simulators lie to you in one way or another.

They’re not exact, but if you take a lot of different ways of looking at it and try to integrate those in your mind, is that what is really going to be like, those are very, very helpful, but we trained for a gazillion things to go. And unfortunately, they didn’t. So, we spent as much, much more time training for things we didn’t do as things that we actually did do.

And we all trained as Eva crew to do any of the tasks so that if a pair of us were out in the cargo bay and we couldn’t do what we did, what was on the flight plan for us to do for whatever reason, the ground needed to look at it or, or whatever, we can move on to something else. We could have been replanted in real time to do that.

So, we had a lot of cross training going on. It was interesting at the end of every day when the crew came in, we would do a little bit of, you know, take a deep breathe and relax, you know, today went well, we got everything done today. And then after about half an hour, maybe it was okay, let’s get onto tomorrow.

Let’s move on to what we’re doing tomorrow and start planning for getting the equipment ready for that tomorrow. So, it was a pretty intense. Five days of space walking, or even longer with that considering the rendezvous before, and then the deploy afterwards. So, it was a pretty intense mission, but it was just, it was fun and it was exciting.

And it was, I guess it was, I remember it so fondly because everything went right. I mean, things worked when we had a few glitches that we worked around, but, but, you know, had it been a failure. Had we messed up. I mean, if we couldn’t have gotten a new solar rays on, we had to kill that telescope and it was bad as it was before we visited it.

They were still getting data. It was being used extensively for planetary research, you know. So, no matter how bad things are, you can always make them worse. And we were so happy. We didn’t do that. And that things worked out.

What do you think is the biggest misconception around being an astronaut? Oh, that’s a good one.Um, I think that that astronauts and not normal people, I find it hilarious that we have the first all civilian crew and it’s just proof that regular people can go to space and I’m thinking, well, who do you think has been doing it? So, I just, I find that hilarious.

Did you ever feel that you were in danger or at risk, um, on your missions generally? I didn’t worry about getting. More, most of you worry about messing up, you know what the whole world’s watching. You don’t want to mess up, but there was. Episode on my first flight. And it’s kind of interesting given what they reported lately about the inspiration for crew and the toilet alarm, because we had a toilet alarm.

That’s one of the two flights of my four that I really felt kind of bad on the first day. And so, we had, it was a classified mission. So, I can’t tell you what we did, but we did it that day. And it was a long day. And at the end I was sort of, you know, rolled up in a ball and my sleeping. Feeling like I’d have to get better to die.

And then all of a sudden, this alarm goes off. They went wa wa, wa I was kidding. I was kidding. Um, but it turns out in the toilet. The container is vented to space and stuff is freeze dried and reduces odor and bacteria growth. And there’s a handle you pulled up and that closed the linkage to space, and then you push it forward.

And that opened the gate valve. And that was your toilet. So, it turns out that when the first person used it in that capacity for solid waste, he pulled up the handle and it didn’t close the length of space because it was a little linkage had broken. And so, we pushed it forward and we had the equivalent of a half-inch hole in our cabin.

So, air is rushing out. Pressure is dropping and master alarm goes off, but you know, the cause and effect was pretty good. You know, he, he throws his handle, cool layers, air rushing past his rear end and the alarm goes off. So, he just closed the handle and it was all was okay. You know, we weren’t really in any danger, but for that, you know, a 10th of a second, when I’m thinking I’d have to get better to die.

And then the master alarm goes off. It turns out. Yeah, we managed it just by putting vice grips on a shaft. And we use that to rotate the shaft, but there was a flight rule in place that says if the toilet’s broken, you’re coming home the next day, because you’re in a closed environment and it can be a serious health hazard.

If you can’t get rid of waste in an environment that you’re living in and breathing in. And I don’t know what, it’d be interesting to know what the flight rules are relative to the inspiration for. And what happened and, and what their response was. We actually had to convince the ground that we’re fine.

Really. We can make this work. It’s just a little vice grip here. We can handle this and they let us stay up. But there’s a rule that said he had to come home.

Can you share your thoughts around the importance of mentorship? Given as fortunate as I have been in my career for lots of reasons, most of them, which had nothing to do with me, it had to be at the right place at the right time.

You know, I tried to look for people that could. Just as a little push. I know in teaching that was, I became a better teacher when I realized that, that you can have a huge impact with almost no effort, you know, just giving somebody confidence, telling them you believe in them, push them along. And so those are the kids that I taught that really sort of took a piece of my heart were the ones that were just work on their bonds.

And getting by while they saw their friends cruising and getting all A’s and then thinking about giving up on themselves, you know, those are the ones I remember.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out in their space career? I guess there, there are lots of ways to be involved in the space program.

Anybody can, there’s so many different dimensions that require humans and people with a passion that anybody can be a part of it. I think most career paths are not. Mine was kind of a random walk. I never knew what I was going to do next. Now, if that was by design or just lack of imagination, it’s hard to say, but I think you have to be open to changing your plans when new opportunities show up.

And if you know, there’s a roadblock in your way, you find a way to go around it with other plans. That’s true. Well, what is a lesson that you’ve learned over the course of your career that you think is. Probably the most important thing is to stay flexible in your expectations and where you think you were going. I don’t think you can predict all the opportunities that are going to show up. And if you’re pointed in a singular linear direction, you might miss some really cool things. I love that.

If you could go back and give your 18-year-old self, a piece of advice, what would that be? Hm, wow. I don’t know. I mean, my 18-year-old person would have had no idea that I could have had the opportunities I’ve had. I mean, there’s just, it’s impossible at 18. This kid in Alabama that was, you know, shortly after guys landed on the moon. And then when President Kennedy said, we’re going to send a man to the Moon, he wasn’t using that in the generic sense.

So, those opportunities were. And even, you know, for the guys around me, you know, who would’ve thought you could get to be an astronaut, but by stumbling in the right places, it’s incredible. I guess that goes back to being flexible. When your expectations, I don’t even know what I thought I was going to do back then.

I don’t think I’ve ever figured out what I’m going to do next or what I’m going to do when I grow up. I’m still working on that a little bit. Wow. We’ll see. Exactly.

Just close this out with a question weighing heavily on everyone. Star Wars or Star Trek.

You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve watched both of them, but I have never gotten into sci-fi. I’m more into the real science than sci-fi. Um, yeah, I know. That’s kind of weird for an astronaut. Not at all.

What’s something about you that most people familiar with your work wouldn’t be. Oh, I continue to look for my next adventure. So, um, I took up backpacking at my advanced age and, uh, I enjoy it. I go out and hike the Appalachian Trail in 2019, and I try to go out for a week or two a year just by myself.

I’m happy to just be out there by myself and walk till I get tired and put that, put my tent down the middle of nowhere by myself. And that’s, I would never thought I would do that. I used to say, you know, that’s, for turtles carrying your house on your back. I’m not very different, you know, I tried it, I’ve come to like it, just never stop exploring that’s right.

Got to find another adventure. Dr. Thornton, thanks again for joining us.

And that concludes this episode of Space Foundation Space4U podcast. You can subscribe to this podcast and leave us a review on Podbean, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, and Spotify.

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Space4U Podcast: Dr. Kathryn Thornton, Former NASA Astronaut