Space Walker Mom

by Jeanette Cain

More articles in People

Kathy (Kathryn C.) Thornton, a native of Montgomery, Alabama, dreamed of becoming an astronaut from an early age, but began as a physicist for the United States Army. Thornton has been on four space shuttle missions, and is the record holder of the most space walks by an American female astronaut.

In the 1980s, as an U.S. Army physicist, Thornton worked on solving problems associated with spaceflight, but only within the confines of her office. Thornton earned her physics degree from the University of Virginia and from Auburn University. While stationed and working at the Army's Science and Technology Center (Charlottesville, Virginia), Thornton read an announcement from NASA: "looking for space shuttle program recruits."

NASA will interview around 4,000 people every two years seeking to fill the 20 astronaut positions that are open. Competition within this NASA program is stiff and hard. In an interview with James T. Black in Southern Living Magazine, Thornton said, "The interviews were hard, but once you got into the program, the training was even more intense."

As a child Thornton remembers the family's S-shaped driveway. Her brothers and sisters, and of course, Thornton, would ride skateboards around the drive while talking to one another on walkie-talkies. Thornton said all family members took turns being ground control when on the fantasy space missions, but she never failed to be the astronaut.

In the real world, Thornton's first shuttle mission was in 1989. She said that all astronauts, even those old pros, will have problems adjusting to weightlessness. It proved to be disorienting for Thornton when left and right, up and down seemed to be out of the usual perspective. She compares it to being turned upside down in one's house, "Could you find your way to the kitchen?" But today Thornton would say that she is at home in the space shuttle, just like being at home in her kitchen.

Thornton's second flight was floating outside the spacecraft orbiting over 300 miles above the Earth's surface. The mission was to retrieve a damaged satellite, and then a year later she was aboard the Endeavour and walked about space to repair the Hubble telescope. Thornton's combined missions have her over 40 days in orbit above Earth. Her last mission was on the Columbia, which she believed gave her the most enjoyment.

After the last mission, Thornton has been helping NASA with the ISS, International Space Station. The ISS will allow scientists world-wide to spend months in space working on research and experiments. Thornton helped develop the tools that will be used by the astronauts working outside to build the ISS.

What's so special about a female that walks in space? This astronaut happens to be the mother of three girls, but says her daughters do not think of her space walks as a big deal. Thornton told Black,"My oldest was two when I became an astronaut, so it's all they've ever known. There's a wall in one of their schools of parents and grandparents who are or were astronauts. There must be 35 or 40 people up there."


1. Black, James T. Southern Living: "Walking in Space." Southern Living Publishing: US June 1997. Volume 32, Number 6. pg.126