Once excluded, astronaut 'KT' Thornton is a star in space


CAPE CANAVERAL -- In some eyes, she was slighted last year by the good old boys at NASA, a victim of the vestiges of sexism. But this week, space walker Kathy "KT" Thornton is the star of the astronomical show.

Perched like an eagle above the ailing Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Thornton already has sculpted the mission's most enduring moment, when she majestically held aloft a damaged panel, then let it go. The panel floated into space -- "like a bird," she said. The scene entranced viewers.

Back on Earth, normally impassive scientists turned poetic.

"Just to watch that thing floating through space was just like '2001,'" said Joe Rothenberg, NASA's associate director of flight projects. "Someday, somebody's going to put that to music."

Tonight, she floats back into space for the mission's most challenging assignment.

After decades of outright and subtle discrimination against women in science, many people -- women and men -- view Dr. Thornton's role during this flight as a giant step for humankind.

"When I heard that voice come back from space, from a woman working on such an important project, I thought back to when I was a flight attendant in Miami 20 years ago and there were no women airline pilots," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. "I felt a real sense of pride on behalf of all women. It made me feel that our work has been worthwhile."

During an Endeavour flight in May 1992, Dr. Thornton was passed over when an innovative spacewalk suddenly became necessary. Three astronauts had to capture a wayward satellite by hand.

Three men were chosen, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said, because of their larger sizes. Others said size and bulk were of questionable value in the weightlessness of space. They accused NASA of harboring traces of sexism. The vast majority of astronauts are men; Dr. Thornton, a physicist and an astronaut since 1984, became only the second woman to walk in space when she finally left the shuttle during that 1992 mission for a more routine task.

Tonight, Dr. Thornton and space walking teammate Tom Akers handle the big assignment: They must install a package of instruments intended to correct Hubble's fuzzy vision, the result of a manufacturing error.

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