Astronaut William Thornton and the Space Shuttle Challenger

Thornton conducting research on the Challenger space shuttle. Image from the State Archives.On August 30, 1983, Faison native William Thornton barrelled into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard the shuttle Challenger.

Born in Duplin County, Thornton received bachelors and medical degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill and worked as electronics engineer before entering the Air Force. It was during his two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force that he became involved in space medicine research and subsequently applied for astronaut training.

After being selected as a scientist-astronaut by NASA in August 1967, Thornton worked on a number of Skylab simulation missions and spent decades doing research work. Two of his primary areas of focus were measuring mass (weight) in space and the reaction of the human body to conditions in space.

Thornton holds more than 35 patents that range in subject from military weapons systems to the first real-time EKG computer analysis. Among other things, he developed a treadmill for in-flight exercise and designed the first mass measuring devices for space, which remain in use today.

A veteran of two space flights, Thornton has logged over 313 hours in space. After serving as a mission specialist on the shuttle Challenger in 1983, he held the same role on Challenger’s 1985 mission. He retired from NASA in 1994.

In 2010, Thornton donated his priceless collection of documents and photos from his work in medical research, physics, electronics, the military and space to the State Archives.