Bill Thornton – A Doctor In Space

by George Spiteri

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On October 24, 1991 I was privileged to attend a lecture by Dr. William Thornton, a veteran of two Space Shuttle flights in 1983 and 1985. Later, I also had the opportunity to put several questions to him about his experiences.

Dr. Thornton described the medical problems of space flight and how they can be overcome. He said that ‘as you can’t redesign the human body human beings have learned and will continue to learn to adapt and work in zero gravity’. Moreover, he noted that a person’s legs are more of less rendered useless in space and pointed out that amputees in future would face no obstacles and would not be handicapped in space travel.

Commenting on Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS) 1 asked Dr. Thornton if Doctors were able to anticipate or predict which individuals would be prone to SAS? He replied with a firm ‘no’, it was still impossible to guess and remains one of the major mysteries of space travel. However he did qualify this by adding that on his first flight, fellow crewman, Dale Gardner did have SAS and yet was able to perform one hundred per cent and help deploy the Indian Insat IB satellite successfully that is still functioning today.

During his talk Dr. Thornton went on to show a short film of his STS-8 mission, he joked that at fifty-four, ‘my wife thought I was too old to go into space’. This flight was the first Shuttle to be launched at night and Dr. Thornton described the sensation of launch and all the vibrations as similar ‘to taking a fast ride on the London Underground!’ He also recalled that during that launch everything was dark until SRB separation when the whole cockpit was lit up inside.

With reference to SRB’s and the ‘Challenger’ disaster I later asked him if he was aware of the dangers of the SRB’s especially that on both his launches into space the SRB’s had come close to causing a similar type of disaster? He replied that he ‘was just thankful it was not a cold day’ but that it all makes one ‘rather philosophical’.

Dr Thornton proudly described the treadmill that he had designed for the Shuttle and talked about various medical experiments he had conducted on his two flights. I later asked him if he recalled the infamous incidents with monkey’s faeces on Spacelab 3 floating round the cabin?

He said it had been a problem ‘but there were other housekeeping problems aboard the Shuttle such as making sure ‘you didn’t get your foot in someone s food!’ ‘Moreover, he said the Shuttle toilet continued to be an ‘engineering challenge’ and with further reference to hygiene he said that as far as the ‘Freedom’ Space Station was concerned an awful lot of dollars was being spent on designing and redesigning a zero gravity shower unit before a satisfactory unit would be ready.’ Dr. Thornton recalled the night-time landing of STS-8 as very smooth, one was hardly aware that one had actually touched down, indicating what an excellent vehicle the space plane really is.

Finally, I asked Dr Thornton as he was still at NASA would he like to fly into space a third time, perhaps to the Soviet MIR Space Station, especially as there is a planned US/USSR joint mission that will include a NASA astronaut with a medical background? Dr. Thornton replied that he’d like to but now he was too old and also didn’t fancy the idea of having to learn RUSSIAN!


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