Blast-off: UVA astronaut recalls first moon landing, career

hotseat-thorntonThornton didn't see herself as one day being in space as she watched the Apollo 11 astronauts walk the moon in 1969.

As one of the millions watching July 20, 1969, as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first to walk on the moon, Kathryn Thornton was awestruck.

“I remember seeing them walk on the moon and walking outside and thinking people are up there,” Thornton says. “It was a pretty amazing moment.”

Despite her excitement about the moon landing, Thornton didn’t see a future for herself in space.

“At the time it wasn’t an option (for women),” Thorton says.

Just over 20 years after that first moonwalk, Thornton was in orbit as a mission specialist on the crew of the space shuttle Discovery.

Selected by NASA in 1984, Thornton orbited earth hundreds of times, logging over 975 hours in space in her career over the course of four space flights. In her second flight, Thornton was aboard the maiden flight of the space shuttle Endeavour.

Thornton left NASA in 1996 to work at UVA, where she earned her master's and doctorate in the late seventies.

Now an associate dean for graduate programs, Thornton remembers her time in space fondly, adding that floating in space was the most memorable part of her trips.

“There’s no way to really simulate that here on earth,” Thornton says

While NASA is facing potential budget cuts and large questions about its future goals (documented in an article in this month’s GQ magazine), Thornton is optimistic about NASA’s long-term prospects.

“The people I talk to think it is still relevant,” she says. Thornton, who in 2008 testified in front of a House committee in favor of exploration to Mars, added that space flight was important to continue for future generations.

“It enriches our life and expands it.”


1969 hard to imagine how much woman's lives have changed. I remember wanting to be a doctor like my father and thinking, it would mean giving up the opportunity to ever have my own children for lack of time, and that I certainly couldn't be a " good wife".

He's a theoretical physicist, so perhaps he can be excused for not knowing observational details.

Although he does know that we emigrate from.

Interesting that Freeman Dyson, who was a professor of Physics, was actually ignorant enough to posit that comets might be remotely habitable. Still, I think he's right about emigrating to a planet!

Years ago, Freeman Dyson spoke at UVA and posited this theory about humans in space, I think he's right.

"When emigration from Earth to a planet or a comet becomes cheap enough for ordinary people to afford, people will emigrate"

by Freeman J. Dyson