HOTSEAT- Star professor: Why Thornton wants to see red

For the average college professor, one of the hardest parts of the job is keeping students' attention in the middle of a long lecture. But UVA physicist Kathryn Thornton is not an average college professor.

"Anytime their eyes glaze over with equations, I can always offer a story about when I was in space," she says.

And Thornton has quite a few celestial tales. Before she became UVA's associate dean for graduate programs in engineering, she logged over 975 hours and 16 million miles in space– the most ever by a woman– as a crew member on four NASA shuttle missions.

According to Thornton, her journeys into the great beyond began with being in the right place at the right time– right here in Charlottesville where she was working as a physicist at the U.S. Army's Foreign Science and Technology Center (now the National Ground Intelligence Center).

"I saw an announcement that they were selecting the next group of astronauts, and I figured all they could do was say no, so I applied on a lark," she says. "I figured it was the most exciting job in the world."

On November 22, 1989, she found out just how exciting that job was when she lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida with the rest of the crew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. Thornton describes the experience as one that literally changed her world view.

"The Apollo astronauts described the earth from space as a fragile earth," she says, "but I saw a powerful earth. There's a lot of energy in the atmosphere; you could see lightning anytime; you could see the ocean turning; you could see volcanoes as tiny little pimples. I thought maybe we're the ones who are fragile."

As profound as that experience was, an even bigger thrill came in May 1992 on the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Endeavour when she performed her first spacewalk. While the crew ultimately accomplished its mission– repairing and deploying a telecommunications satellite– Thornton's first experience outside the shuttle was not without its rookie mistakes.  

"I was getting ready to pull a switch to release the satellite," she explains, "and I had my other hand holding down the button on my microphone while I counted down. But because it's zero-g, in order to pull the switch, I had to push against the shuttle with the other hand. So mission control heard me stop counting at three. For a moment, they were a little concerned."

Having retired from NASA to teach at UVA in 1996, Thornton admits it's been occasionally frustrating for the last 10 years watching NASA from the sidelines. 

"Right now, we're not exploring space," she explains. "But I'm excited about the potential of life in the past or in the future on Mars. I'm not sure if life exists there, but we have to go because we've never been there before."

And, much as Thornton enjoys her work at UVA, if NASA needs an experienced space traveler to walk the red hills of Mars, they don't have to look any further than the red clay of Virginia. 

Age: 54

Why here? It's a great place to live and raise a family.

What's worst about living here? The ebb and flow of traffic on football weekends.

Favorite hangout? The Kennedy Space Center. Even if they won't let me strap in, I love hanging out within sight of a space craft.

Most overrated virtue? Are we talking Ben Franklin or Buddha? I would say "Dispassion– indifference to pleasure and to pain." A very wise person once told me, "If you can't do your job with passion, you should find another job."

People would be surprised to know: I took a poll of my staff. They say people are surprised that I am more "down-to-earth" than they expect.   

What would you change about yourself? I wish I were more outgoing.

Proudest accomplishment? I have an award on my desk from AAA for helping to establish a new frontier in emergency service: Approved Aeronautics Repair in Space, after the Hubble Service Mission. I'm an honorary AAA technician who only works in zero-g.

People find most annoying about you: My every-afternoon popcorn habit leaves a delightful aroma in the office– if you like popcorn.   

Whom do you admire? John Young and Bob Crippen, true space heroes who rode the first Space Shuttle into orbit, and Jane Smith, wife of Challenger pilot Mike Smith, who handled a very public personal tragedy with enormous dignity and grace. 

Favorite book? Longitude by Dava Sobel

Subject that causes you to rant? The war in Iraq!!

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Traveling with my family to interesting locations around the world 

Biggest 21st-century creep out? I can no longer carry toothpaste on an airplane.

What do you drive? Dodge minivan affectionately called the "Mothership"

In your car CD player right now: An eclectic mix put together by my daughter: James Brown, Jimmy Buffett,  ZZ Top, etc. 

Next journey? To Durant, Oklahoma, to speak to 8,000 children of the Choctaw Nation

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Me? No way– that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Regret: I wish I had learned to play a musical instrument when I was younger.

Favorite comfort food: Good Tex-Mex. My favorite vegetable is jelly beans– especially Jelly Belly Sours.

Always in your refrigerator: Milk, Diet Coke, and yogurt

Must-see TV:  Grey's Anatomy and Boston Legal

Favorite cartoon: Doonesbury, Family Circus and Cathy

Describe a perfect day: Sleeping late and having nothing to do except what strikes my fancy.

Walter Mitty fantasy: One of my fantasies is that NASA will recall the first Hubble Space Telescope Service crew, including me, to do the final service mission next year– it would be like Space Cowboys meets the Hubble. Until that crew is officially announced, I'm anxiously waiting by my phone.

Who'd play you in the movie? Movie?! I want the real thing!

Most embarrassing moment? Not interested in reliving it.

Best advice you ever got? "Stress is only self-induced. No one can do it to you."

Favorite bumper sticker? "The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us will go to the stars."

Kathryn Thornton