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Former NASA astronaut named 2016 Distinguished Alumna in the College of Sciences and Mathematics

Published: 10/13/2016

By: Lindsay Penny

Kathryn Thornton, physics ’74, has been named the 2016 Distinguished Alumna in the College of Sciences and Mathematics.

COSAM’s Distinguished Alumni Awards recognize alumni who have achieved significant stature in their chosen fields while also possessing a history of commitment to Auburn University and the college.

Selected as an astronaut by NASA in May 1984, Thornton is a veteran of four space flights: STS-33 in 1989, STS-49 in 1992, STS-61 in 1993, and STS-73 in 1995. She has logged over 975 hours in space, including more than 21 hours of extravehicular activity (EVA), and was the first woman to participate in a classified U.S. Government space mission.

Thornton was a mission specialist on the crew of STS-33, which launched at night from Kennedy Space Center in 1989 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. The mission carried Department of Defense payloads and other secondary payloads. In 1992, on her second flight, Thornton served on the crew of STS-49 on board the maiden flight of the new Space Shuttle Endeavour, and the following year, was an EVA crewmember aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on the STS-61 Hubble Space Telescope servicing and repair mission. On her final mission in 1995, Thornton served aboard Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-73 as the payload commander of the second United States Microgravity Laboratory mission.

Since leaving NASA, Thornton has served on several NASA review committees and task groups, including the Return to Flight Task Group, which evaluated NASA’s work in meeting goals set by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board prior to resumption of Space Shuttle flights. In 2008, Thornton co-chaired a workshop titled, “Examining the Vision for Space Exploration” held at Stanford University and subsequently testified on the results before the Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the U.S. House of Representatives. She is currently on the board of the Space Foundation and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, is co-author on Pearson’s Interactive Science, a K-8 science program, and is director of the aerospace engineering program at the University of Virginia.

Thornton is the recipient of numerous awards including NASA Space Flight Medals, the Explorer Club Lowell Thomas Award, the National Astronautics Association Robert J. Collier Trophy, the Freedom Foundation Freedom Spirit Award, and the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement. She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010.

In addition to her Auburn degree, Thornton received her master’s and doctorate degrees in physics at the University of Virginia. 

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