U.Va.'s Kathryn Thornton on Sally Ride


July 24, 2012 — Kathryn Thornton is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia. She is a former NASA astronaut, with more than 975 hours in space, including 21 hours of extravehicular activity. In 2010, she was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

She responded Monday to questions about her late NASA colleague, Sally Ride, who died July 23 of pancreatic cancer.

You and Sally Ride were in NASA around the same time. How well did you know her and did you work together on projects/flights?

Sally joined the astronaut program six years ahead of me, and I looked up to the first shuttle astronauts selected in 1978 as our first-year students look up to upper classmen. I thought they knew everything. My first assignment in the Astronaut Office was to assist Sally with flight crew equipment for space flights.

Ride is known best as the first woman in space. How else should she be remembered?

Rather than making a ton of money doing endorsements, which she could have done, Sally dedicated her post-NASA years to inspiring young women to study math and science. She did more than contribute her name, she was a very hands-on leader of Sally Ride Science. Each Sally Ride Science Festival was kicked off by a keynote speaker, and when Sally couldn't be there herself she recruited a suitable replacement who was carefully observed by her sister, Bear. I did keynote addresses for several Sally Ride Festivals so Bear's initial report back to Sally must have been positive.

How major was it in the '80s for girls and young women to see you and Sally as astronauts?

I think it is just as important today as it was in the '80s, maybe more so, for young people to have positive role models and aspirational goals that Sally represented.