William Edgar Thornton, M.D., a retired astronaut, medical professor and inventor, passed away January 11, 2021 at his home in Fair Oaks Ranch, TX with his wife Jennifer by his side.
He was born on April 14, 1929 in Faison, NC to the late William E. Thornton and Rosa B. Thornton. There will be a small graveside service at a later date in Faison.
While attending Faison High School he opened a radio repair shop and used the profits to pay for college. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1952 from the University of North Carolina. Dr. Thornton enlisted in the United States Air Force where he served as the officer-in-charge of the USAF Instrumentation Laboratory at the Flight Test Air Proving Ground at Elgin Air Force Base, Florida. In working to improve air-to-air combat defenses, Thornton discovered that rockets could be tracked by radar. He developed the Radar Optic Firing Error Indicator (ROFEI), or Thornton Scorer, which was the first practical means of evaluating and maintaining the accuracy of interceptor aircraft. The Thornton Scorer was highly successful and Thornton, as a Second Lieutenant, was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1956.
After leaving the military in 1956, he worked as the chief engineer of the electronics division at Del Mar Engineering Labs in California. Thornton married the former Elizabeth Jennifer Fowler from Newgate Street, England in 1958 and they had two sons. In 1959, he decided to continue his education and enrolled in medical school at the University of North Carolina. After graduating in 1963, Dr. Thornton returned to active duty and was sent to the USAF Aerospace Medical Division at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. Thornton invented a mass measuring device to determine the weight of items in space which is still in use today.
Dr. Thornton was selected as a member of the second class of scientist-astronauts in 1967.
In 1972, he 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.
Dr. Thornton logged over 313 hours in space aboard two missions; STS-8 Challenger (August 30-September 5, 1983) and STS-51B 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 60 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 Shuttle treadmill for in-flight exercise, shock and vibration isolation systems, and an improved waste collection system.
In May of 1994, Dr. Thornton retired from NASA and became a Clinical Professor of Cardiovascular Physical Diagnosis at UTMB. In an effort to improve learning, he developed a hybrid hardware/software system simulating the process of auscultation. With this invention the ability of medical students to recognize anomalies in patients’ hearts was greatly increased.
While in his 80s Dr. Thornton spent several years writing “The Human Body and Weightlessness” a comprehensive textbook on the effects of spaceflight on the human body and solutions.
Dr. Thornton was instrumental in the refurbishment of many structures in his hometown of Faison. In addition, he successfully reintroduced long leaf pine to the family farm outside Faison and planted 8000 trees knowing he would be gone long before they reached maturity. It was his desire to return the farmland to the forest of his youth.
Dr. Thornton is survived by his wife of 62 years, Jennifer Thornton; son William Simon Thornton and wife Mary Kay Thornton of Fair Oaks Ranch, TX; son James Fallon Thornton, MD and wife Katina Thornton, MD of Dallas, TX; and grandchildren Nicholas Thornton, Alexandra Valentine, Michael Thornton, Sarah Thornton, Ava Thornton, Elizabeth Thornton, Alexandra Thornton, Victoria Thornton and Emily Thornton.
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