William Edgar Thornton, M.D. was born on April 14, 1929 in Faison, North Carolina. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1952 and a Doctorate of Medicine in 1963 from the University of North Carolina. Following his graduation, Dr. Thornton enlisted in the United States Air Force where he was assigned to the USAF Aerospace Medical Division at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. During this two year tour of duty he became involved in space medicine and decided to apply for astronaut training.

In 1967, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected Dr. Thornton as a scientist-astronaut. In 1972, he, along with astronauts Bob Crippen and Karol Bobko, participated in the Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test (SMEAT), a 56-day simulation of an American Skylab mission at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. During this experiment, the astronauts simulated space experiments, housekeeping, and leisure activities in a hypobaric chamber.

Dr. Thornton logged over 313 hours in space aboard two missions; the STS-8 Challenger (August 30-September 5, 1983) and the Spacelab 3 Challenger (April 29-May 6, 1985). During the STS-8 mission, he was responsible for making continuous measurements and investigations of the adaptation of the human body to weightlessness. These experiments included a number of first time measurements on the human nervous system while in space. During the Spacelab 3 mission, Dr. Thornton’s responsibilities included the management of the first animal payload in manned flight.

Dr. Thornton holds over 50 issued patents that cover a wide range of applications from military weapons systems to the first real-time EKG computer analysis. His space related patents include the first in-flight mass measurement devices, shock and vibration isolation systems, and an improved waste collection system. Dr. Thornton also developed a Shuttle treadmill for in-flight exercise.

In May of 1994, Dr. Thornton retired from NASA and became a Clinical Professor of Cardiovascular Physical Diagnosis at UTMB. While here, he developed a hybrid hardware/software system simulating the process of auscultation. This system, commonly referred to as “heart sounds,” allows students to see, hear, and feel a virtual patient’s heart beats using real stethoscopes and specifically designed transducers. Current medical students continue to use this system as a part of their second year coursework.

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  • Missions

    Materials from the STS-8 and Spacelab 3 shuttle missions.
  • Research

    Images and documents from Dr. Thornton's work on various projects.

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