Former Astronaut & Space Foundation Chairwoman Kathryn C. Thornton: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative and Equitable Society
…The best leaders recognize the talents of each individual and bring those talents out of those people so they can apply them to problems. Leaders need to make sure every team member feels valued — from the guy sweeping the floor to the technicians and all the way up to the president. Everyone has a unique role in the mission, and the mission cannot go without them. They need to know that.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn C. Thornton, chairwoman of the board of Space Foundation, an American scientist, and former American astronaut.
Kathryn received a bachelor’s degree in physics at Auburn University in 1974, followed by a master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics at the University of Virginia. She was awarded a NATO postdoctoral fellowship to continue her research at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. In 1980, Thornton became a physicist at the United States Army Foreign Science and Technology Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Selected by NASA in May 1984, Thornton spent the next 12 years as an astronaut, completing four flights and over 975 hours in space, while raising a family. Upon leaving NASA in 1996, Thornton became a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and served as the associate dean for graduate programs during her 23-year career at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science. Thornton was invited to join Space Foundation as a board member in 2010 and was named chairwoman in 2019. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing and scuba diving, and on October 16, 2019, Thornton completed a thru-hike of the 2,192-mile Appalachian Trail.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Kathryn! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Iwas born and raised in Alabama, the second of six siblings. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I am still working on that today. But I didn’t even consider being an astronaut as a kid. When I was growing up, astronauts were all men, and they were all test pilots. I was neither of those, so it just didn’t seem like an option.
Math and chemistry didn’t resonate with me in college, but I found the puzzle of physics intriguing. I studied physics as an undergrad at Auburn State University and went on to the University of Virginia where I received a master’s and Ph.D. in nuclear physics. From there, I did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, and then returned to Charlottesville, Virginia, and worked for the U.S Army Foreign Science and Technology Center for four years.
In 1983, I just happened to see an announcement that NASA was selecting the next group of astronauts. I remember the requirements being basic. They just wanted a healthy person with an advanced degree. So I applied, even though I didn’t think I had a chance. But NASA called six months later, and I went to Houston for a week-long interview. I still didn’t think I had a chance, but NASA called in May 1984 to tell me I had been selected. I spent the next 12 years as an astronaut. I had four great flights and added two more daughters to our family while I was there.
I left NASA in 1996 and became a professor at the University of Virginia. I retired in 2019. In 2010, I joined the board of Space Foundation, a 501(c)(3) global space advocate for 37 years, and became chairwoman in 2019. Space Foundation has been developing workforce development and economic opportunity initiatives for several years to encourage inclusion of all people in the space industry. Our Center for Innovation and Education launched in early 2020 to accelerate those efforts.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The book that comes to mind is “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Christine Darden and Mary Jackson, four black women who worked for NASA during the space race. I grew up in the South in the 1960s when these women were working for NASA. I was not aware of them until the book came out, but they made enormous contributions to the field.
As a kid, I remember the segregated restrooms and water fountains. Schools were segregated too. These brilliant women didn’t have the opportunity to send their applications to the top science and engineering universities in the country as our kids might today. They attended historically black universities near where they lived, which was their only choice at the time. I find it remarkable that they attended college at all, which was not the norm for women of the time.
Today, when employers are looking for bright engineers, they too often focus their recruiting on elite universities. There are smart students at elite universities, of course, but we’re missing gems that go to other universities. You can increase diversity in the workplace by looking beyond the select few schools deemed “elite.”
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
When I’d complain I didn’t know how to do something, my mom used to say to me, “you are not going to learn any younger,” meaning there is no time like the present to learn something new, so what are you waiting for? I still say this to myself. My mother embraced lifelong learning well before lifelong learning was a thing. We often hear that our education system must prepare students for the 21st century. How can we do that when we have no idea what the 21st century will bring? I believe we have to prepare students to invent the 21st century, and lifelong learning is central to that mission. I try to keep up in the digital world so I don’t get left behind like the old folks we used to make fun of who couldn’t program their VCR.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
The best leaders recognize the talents of each individual and bring those talents out of those people so they can apply them to problems. Leaders need to make sure every team member feels valued — from the guy sweeping the floor to the technicians and all the way up to the president. Everyone has a unique role in the mission, and the mission cannot go without them. They need to know that.
Even though every astronaut’s home base is in Houston, we often flew to the Kennedy Space Center to participate in system tests and follow the progress of “our” space shuttle. During the day, we would often meet with engineers and managers. After hours and often during the midnight shift, we would go into the Orbiter Processing Facility to talk with technicians who were getting our orbiter ready for flight. These were the folks who glued tiles, installed engines, and did everything to make the vehicle flight ready. We thanked them for their careful work and their exquisite attention to detail. We were visible reminders that their work was important and they were valued. We trusted our lives to them.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
My strategy for relieving stress is simply to be as prepared as possible. The training curriculum before each shuttle mission was intense and built to a crescendo right before launch day. We trained for nominal operations and for every possible malfunction that we could mitigate. Before every mission, I felt I was trained for anything that could be fixed. Whatever was beyond my control, I didn’t worry about. People asked me if I was afraid on the launch pad, and I don’t think I was. I can do what I can do, and I don’t sweat what I can’t do. Just being prepared is the best you can expect from yourself.
On my last flight, I was the payload commander, and our launch was delayed multiple times. We were quarantined until launch, so the delays resulted in more than a month of quarantine. It was like “Groundhog Day,” only every day was the day before flight. My best counter to stress is to stay busy, so I ran, exercised and reviewed procedures to stay optimal for the launch. We were living at the Kennedy Space Center, so the security team kept us distracted with activities like skeet shooting and taking us out on the airboats to look at manatees.
OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is, of course, a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Today’s social unrest is due partly to the ubiquity of cell phones and social media. Both are major players in that we can see things that we wouldn’t have seen during previous eras. That is not to say that injustice did not and does not happen out of view, but we cannot ignore what we can see.
Due in part to social media, we are witness to appalling acts of cruelty and injustice against fellow humans as well as extraordinary acts of bravery, compassion and kindness. Even the COVID-19 virus seems to have chosen sides, disproportionately attacking minority and poorer communities.
Social change does not come without strife. The last time we faced a global pandemic, women in the United States were fighting for the right to vote. I don’t imply that one caused the other, but it is interesting to note that progress in women’s rights was made in the midst of widespread disease and death. I say “progress” because equality is still a journey, not a destination reached. We can and must make measurable progress toward racial and ethnic equality and social justice now despite the current pandemic.
We all have a role to play in ensuring equality and justice for all our brothers and sisters. We can begin by examining our own implicit biases — we all have them — and by acknowledging the privileges we have enjoyed. I’ll start. I enjoyed white privilege growing up in the South in the 50s and 60s. I enjoyed the privilege of a loving family who could provide for all of my needs. I enjoyed the opportunity and the expectation that I would go to college when the norm for young women at that time and place was to get married soon after high school, start a family, and get on with life. Every young girl and boy in America does not enjoy those same privileges, so we must do what we can to level the playing field for everyone.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion in Education & Business? Can you share a story with us?
I mentored and advised students at University of Virginia. Most of the students who are really smart get great internships, do well, and are fun to get to know, and they will do fine without any help from me.
My soft spot is for the ones that are struggling. An example is first-generation college students who have no one at home to advise them or help them get opportunities or students that are struggling academically. The big secret is that academia doesn’t measure all the qualities of what makes a great contributor to society, such as in engineering. We only judge a small subset. It’s okay to work really hard to get a B- or C when your classmate may be cruising and getting an A. Once you get out of the university environment, it is a whole new game; you start with a clean slate like everyone else, and the scorecard is very different. I told very creative, out-of-the box thinkers, who don’t follow the norms, not to give up on themselves, that they would do fine in the real world.
Case in point: I worked with one launch director who handled most of my space launches. He was the person who went and spoke to the families and soothed their concerns, and he gave the final “GO for launch.” He told me that he barely graduated back in the 1950s. Yet, he successfully led many space shuttle missions. Definitely one of my heroes.
The lack of diversity in many industries, including the space technology workforce, is a systemic problem. Underserved groups are key to unlocking the innovation gap in the space economy.
Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) in 2018, Space Foundation launched an initiative under its Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program to remove the barriers that businesses owned by underserved groups like women, minorities and veterans face in engaging with the space industry and expanding their businesses.
Facilitated by webinars, speaker events, and regional workshops, Space Commerce participants learn about the breadth of opportunities available in the space industry. They learn the knowledge and skills to become suppliers to both large enterprises and government agencies in space-related industries, including aerospace, food production, finance, healthcare, information technology, public safety, telecommunications and more.
After participating in workshops and webinars, participants are connected to space professionals through the Space Foundation Senior Mentor program and at our annual global Space Symposium conference. The result: new pathways for new demographics to build a qualified workforce of space contributors. To date, the Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program has helped more than 275 minority-owned enterprises become a part of the space economy.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
We all bring our own experiences and perspectives to bear on any problem. If we agree on what the overarching goal is, then we can probably find lots of paths to get there. And that is where the diversity of life, academic work, and experience all come into play.
According to the late Katherine Phillips, professor of management at Columbia University, diverse groups outperform more homogenous groups because the interplay of conflicting ideas leads to better outcomes. “Diversity serves as a trigger,” she explained. “It makes people dig deeper, work harder, question themselves.”
What comes to mind from my experience is flight rules meetings. Before every flight, we would have a set of rules that guide actions in the event of an anomaly. What is the best course of action if X stopped working? The space shuttle was a very complex machine, where failure in one system affects other systems. We needed many people with diversity of expertise and experience to arrive at the best of many possible actions. The team would have loud discussions on what was the best path. We all had different perspectives. We needed those diverse perspectives to define the best solution for the mission objectives.
OK. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As a global convener of the world’s space community, we launched our Center for Innovation and Education at Space Foundation with the mission to provide greater access and opportunity for current and future generations of space contributors. Our approach is an all-inclusive strategy through collaborative partnerships that develop and deliver innovative and economic programming to build a sustainable workforce.
At the hub of the Center for Innovation and Education is our Workforce Development Roadmap, which lays the foundation for building the space workforce today and into the future. The roadmap consists of five core principles that address key issues in building a diverse and inclusive workforce. These principles can be readily extrapolated to build a representative and equitable culture in broader communities.
- Awareness of space impact and the breadth of workforce opportunities. Raising space industry awareness and workforce opportunities has been a focus of Space Foundation since the beginning. There is a misconception that the space industry is for a select workforce of astronauts, scientists and government contractors. This could not be further from the truth. Today, there is an opportunity for everyone, in virtually every community in the world, to participate in the space economy. How? People with a STEM background can build rockets, yes, but there are also opportunities for entrepreneurs to commercialize space-based technologies, for artists to create new designs, and for skilled trade workers to perform fiber laser welding. The future of space is extending into commercial technologies that not only benefit the aerospace community but also improve life here on Earth.
- Access to jobs, careers and business ventures for all people. I have seen that it isn’t just enough to be aware of opportunities in the space industry; we need to make those opportunities accessible. I remember a time during my 12 years at NASA, the Kennedy Space Center reached out to a local community college to train technicians to apply tiles on the space shuttle. This was not a skill that was taught at the college. It was a need, and through collaboration with the college, the skill was eventually taught and accessible to anyone interested in the space industry. Today, the space workforce is a collaboration of communities, public and private companies, government agencies, entrepreneurs and small business suppliers, educational institutions, and space enthusiasts. By partnering with like-minded organizations, Space Foundation is opening the door to expanding access to all people interested in the space economy.
- Training for lifelong learning of sustainable skills. In today’s workforce, careers are not linear or set by unchanging parameters. Workplaces are more dynamic, and technology changes the way we work at an unprecedented pace. Traditional education is not keeping up with the needs or the workplace, and employers are not providing the continued job training workers need in light of evolving technology and automation. Department of Labor Statistics and Pearson surveys show that 64% of workers are in favor of job-hopping, often to pursue new challenges and higher salaries that are commensurate with their skill level. The average employee tenure is 4.2 years. This number drops to just 2.8 years for employees ages 25–34. Employees around the globe report a need for further education every two years because their jobs have changed. Training for me has been a lifelong pursuit, and likewise, Space Foundation endeavors to enable lifelong learners, from students to professionals at any stage of their careers. Through grants, sponsorships and partnerships, we provide a wide range of multimodal training, including hands-on camps, field excursions, self-guided online webinars, and collaborative regional workshops and virtual events for training as well as plans for reskilling or upskilling to grow and retain a vibrant space economy workforce.
- Connections to a vast space network of people, businesses and resources. Gaining entry into most fields is bolstered by one’s network and connections. This is a major stumbling block for most underserved groups, and we at Space Foundation are working to open up our network and communities to new demographics. Here’s how: Space Foundation’s annual Space Symposium is the leading international event for the space industry, attracting 15,000-plus representatives from the military, civil and commercial space sectors to examine space issues from multiple perspectives, promote dialogue, conduct new business ventures and partnerships, and focus attention on critical space issues. Space Foundation extends scholarships to teachers, students, young professionals and space commerce entrepreneurs in order to build their networks. The New Generation Leadership program connects promising young professionals (ages 35 and younger) to space professionals that can provide real-world career advice, guidance and job roadmaps. The new Swigert Society Young Leaders program connects tomorrow’s leaders with philanthropists who want to make substantial innovations a reality by providing funds that will jump-start promising efforts.
- Mentorship of young leaders to be next-generation role models. There are fewer space industry role models today than there were during the excitement of the 1960s. Yet, to build and retain a qualified workforce requires mentoring and role models for today’s youth, educators, young professionals, entrepreneurs and small businesses. In high school, I was the only girl in my physics class. The retired Air Force officer who taught the class treated me the same way he treated his male students. He didn’t belittle me. He was the reason I majored in physics in college, and I credit my career to him. That’s the power of just having someone believe in you. I invited him to all of my launches. Anyone aspiring to be a valuable contributor to the space economy wants to learn and be inspired. Not only can a mentor aid in skill development and career advancement, but having a role model gives the curious an inside look into their profession, helping to drive and motivate the workforce to pursue passions and continue developing talents throughout their careers. Integrating contributors with experienced leaders in the workplace will allow for active engagement, collaboration, and the development of a thriving space industry. Recognizing that people are one of the most powerful assets, our programs at Space Foundation are designed to ensure a healthy, balanced progression of mentorship and role models at all levels — from aspiring workforce candidates to space professionals. Space Foundation Teacher Liaisons inspire students, communities and peer educators, while our NewGen Ambassadors mentor middle and high school students, and its Senior Leader Mentors guide young leaders, entrepreneurs and small businesses.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes, I think we have to hope that we can get to an equitable and inclusive society. During some periods in time, we make big steps forward, and in other periods, we only make incremental steps. While perfection may be illusive, we will improve our ability to welcome and value what people bring to the table — no matter their appearance, lifestyle or viewpoint. At the least, I hope we come out of this current period more humble, kinder, gentler and better listeners.
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would have loved to meet the amazing women featured in “Hidden Figures”: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Christine Darden and Mary Johnson and learned more about how they tunneled through the barriers to make their significant contributions to NASA. Thank goodness for the book and movie; their legacy will live on and inspire generations to come. But it doesn’t end there.
I would love to uncover other “hidden figures” in our midst, beyond space exploration, making important contributions to bettering life on Earth through space innovations in medicine, telecommunications, food production, energy and the environment, transportation, and other space-impacted industries.
How can our readers follow you online?
Space Foundation (www.spacefoundation.org), Center for Innovation and Education (www.spacefoundation.org/CIE), and the Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program are excellent destinations to find out what we are doing to drive inclusion and diversity through workforce development and economic opportunity programs for the global space community.
Our social channels are another great way to stay connected:
Space Foundation on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/space-foundation
Space Foundation on Facebook: www.facebook.com/SpaceFoundation1
Space Foundation on Instagram: www.instagram.com/spacefoundation
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!