Columbia tragedy: Local astronaut looks ahead

For one Central Virginian, news of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster on Saturday hit particularly close to home. Kathryn C. Thornton, former astronaut and now assistant dean and professor in the UVA School of Engineering, completed her final mission in space on the Columbia shuttle on November 5, 1995.

She is reticent about her own feelings for the human cost of the shuttle program, the Columbia and Challenger tragedies. Her first flight aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1989 came just three years after the Challenger disaster, so no doubt safety was a personal concern on her travels.

Thornton knew three of the astronauts aboard Columbia's last flight, which began disintegrating 207,000 feet above Texas on February 1.

"They had just entered the program and were doing their training. We overlapped by a year. I spoke with them, but I didn't spend a lot of time with them," she recalls before falling silent.

Asked about any further reactions, she says succinctly: "It's very sad for the families."

Thornton points out that to crews, the shuttles appear alike, but Columbia was the heaviest by 8,000 pounds. It was the only one of the crafts that was not loaded with a docking station so that astronauts could work within the space station, where three astronauts are still orbiting.

The Columbia is "a self-contained space station" used for scientific experiments, Thornton says, adding, "Dry weight, it is the heaviest shuttle to come home." For that reason, it carried a lighter payload than other shuttles.

But neither the weight of Columbia nor its age were issues, in Thornton's opinion.

"Discovery is the second oldest shuttle, and it has had almost as many flights as the Columbia," she notes.

Columbia was proceeding on an unremarkable course for re-entry, Thornton says, but she acknowledges that there may have been a problem with the heat tiles or the thermal testing system. Unwilling to speculate further, she prefers to look ahead.

"The intent of the shuttle program was to transport materials to the space station," she explains. "We can't stand down for three years. There aren't spare parts available now to build a new shuttle, as there were to build the Endeavour (which Thornton and colleagues took on its maiden voyage in 1992).

"The current shuttle is a work horse, but the program has to move forward with funding for a new generation of shuttles. Now is the time to get going on that," she says.