Final Exercises 1996: Thornton Speech

Kathryn Thornton
Commencement Address, May 19, 1996
University of Virginia

I would like to thank President Casteen and the Board of Visitors for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. I find I am tremendously excited for the new graduates and, at the same time, somewhat apprehensive. I am excited because I know the wealth of opportunities that will be available to you; apprehensive because I know to take advantage of these opportunities will require innovativeness, perseverance when things get tough, adaptability when things don’t go quite as you had expected, and above all courage to take risks — to stick your neck out, to jump in with both feet, to go for it — all the cliches that mean to pass up a safer course of action in favor of one less certain, but one that promises great rewards. It is your willingness to risk that will in the final analysis be the yardstick by which your success will be measured.

The cost of taking risks can be very high, but the cost of not taking risks can be even higher. Five hundred years ago, Christopher Columbus sailed west from Spain in search of gold and spices in the Orient. Instead he found corn and tobacco and a new continent. He failed to reach the Orient, returned to Spain with only two of his three ships but, nevertheless, changed the face of this planet.

Two hundred years ago, Captain James Cook sailed from England on a ship named Endeavor, the namesake of our newest Space Shuttle, on a scientific expedition to explore a land mass believed to stretch from the South Pacific to the South Pole. He ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and nearly lost his ship, but with the help of the carpenter and blacksmith aboard he repaired his ship, completed his journey, and eventually returned to England.

Twenty-seven years ago earthlings first set foot on the moon to swelling American pride and the jubilation of the whole world — after the tragic loss of life in the Apollo 1 fire and before near loss of life in the Apollo 13 flight.

Fifteen years ago the world’s first and only reusable space ship was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and landed safely at Edwards ASFB, California. Five years and 24 Space Shuttle flights later, we were again reminded by the Challenger explosion that the cost of taking risks is very high.

Important to me, but somewhat insignificant from this perspective, was the first flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor satellite stranded in low earth orbit, attach a new booster motor and then deploy it into a geosynchronous orbit. If you recall that mission at all, it is probably not because of its successes but because of its failures. On two attempts to catch the satellite, we came up empty handed. On the third attempt, an unprecedented three-person spacewalk, my crewmates literally grabbed the 10-thousand pound satellite with only their gloved hands, and it was then berthed in the cargo bay and attached to its new motor. The excitement wasn’t over yet. As hard as we worked to get that satellite, it was even harder to get rid of. On the fourth attempt it was successfully deployed and only two months later brought the 1992 summer Olympics from Barcelona, Spain, into our homes.

What if we had not been successful? What if we had failed to capture INTELSAT? I was more than a little discouraged to come back to earth and learn that had we failed; NASA as an agency would have taken a beating in the press, would have been portrayed as hopelessly inept, and would have suffered greatly in the next federal budget cycle. I was discouraged because if failure is unacceptable, then so is risk–and risk is what exploration is all about! Risk is what life is all about! We press the envelope; try things that have never been done before for the sake of learning. Sometimes have found outstanding success. Sometimes we fail. We need to understand those failures and accept them as a natural part of learning, of growing and of taking risks.

In my office I have lapel button sent to me by a friend. On that button is a slogan that I think of from time to time when I am feeling a little too comfortable. It says, "The meek will inherit the earth. The rest of us will go to the stars." Each of you sitting here this morning can, if you choose, go to the stars. The University of Virginia has prepared you well for that adventure.

Through your education at UVa you have developed a solid understanding of science, mathematics and technology, absolutely essential in the world of the 21st century. You have developed a strong social awareness and understanding of the complex relationship between society and technology that defines the world we live in. You have learned the value of team work; taking advantage of the strengths each of us has to accomplish a common goal. Finally, I am confident you have discovered the beauty of literature and of the arts, and realize why the humanities and the arts are often referred to as the soul of humankind.

Through your hard work and diligence, you have acquired a foundation that will allow you to weigh risks versus benefits; to evaluate the effect a certain course of action will have on you, on your family and on society.

Is it foolish to take risks? Sometimes it is, when the consequences of failure are severe and the rewards are minimal. But to reap great rewards, to be an explorer, an inventor, a leader, you must risk even though the consequence of failure is severe.

Let me give you an example:

If I were to place a balance beam between two chairs here and offer any one of you $100 if you would walk across it, I believe I would have a long line of volunteers each of them thinking: that’s a pretty easy thing to do, it’s no big deal if I fail, and I would really like to have with an extra $100 in my pocket tonight!

Now, what if the balance beam spanned the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The task itself is no more difficult and you could still enjoy spending $100, but the consequence of failure is immediate and severe! I see my line of volunteers getting shorter, and the ones who are left are engineers who cleverly made parachutes from their bedsheets! Very few of the serious choices you will have to make in life will be that clear cut.

What if I increased the reward to one million dollars? Two million dollars? Ten million dollars? Now my volunteers are thinking, "With ten million dollars, invested at 8% even after taxes, I could have a good life….if I still have a life" I see a few more volunteers lining up, even without their parachutes.

Think about it. Would you do it? Would I do it? I might have considered it when I was younger, but now I have a family who need me more than they need a million dollars. Or so I like to think — yet I have four times strapped myself onto a rocket and rode 7 million pounds of thrust to earth orbit; three times climbed into a spacesuit and become a human satellite tethered to the Space Shuttle by only a narrow strand of wire and fabric. All this for only $2 a day flight pay! Is the benefit worth the risk? I believe with all my heart that it is.

Spaceflight involves risks–risks of resources and risks of human lives–but it returns enormous benefits. First, and to me most important, it feeds the human spirit. Humans have always dreamed of space travel from the flight of Icarus in Greek mythology to the Starship Enterprise, and we are willing to spend big bucks to indulge ourselves in that fantasy. Americans spent more than $0.5 billion to watch the three Star Wars films and another $0.5 billion to purchase products related to the 1985 encounter with Halley’s Comet. For the producers of the films and the entrepreneurs marketing Halley’s Comet memorabilia, that was a risk that paid off handsomely, but for the rest of us it was just a nice, safe way to satisfy our inborn urge for adventure, at least for a while.

How much more exciting was the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with the planet Jupiter two years ago as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. That was a real life adventure being played out right before our eyes. We were all mesmerized by the daily photos from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore as the 23 fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy, the "string of pearls" as they were called, pelted Jupiter. Each of those photos represents a leap of faith by a lot of people, from those who originally conceived of an orbiting telescope, to those who built it, launched it, and to the thousands who were a part of the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Those people committed their lives to that project over the years, and continued to believe in it even during times when it was much less popular in the press and in the halls of Congress (Techno-turkey is a term I recall being associated with it!).

Today, the Hubble Space Telescope is returning data that challenges almost all the theories of the size of the universe, of the age of the universe, of black holes and dark matter. Is that worth the risks involved, the risks that I took in being in part of the servicing and repair? You bet it was! The Hubble Space Telescope may not put food on our tables, house the homeless, or cure cancer, but it is feeding the human spirit.

In 1995, I was a crewmember on another Space Shuttle mission, one that made less of a splash in the popular press but may have greater impact on our daily lives and on our economy in the years to come.

On that mission, instead of having satellites in our cargo bay, we had a pressurized volume called Spacelab that gave us the facilities we needed to conduct a variety of scientific experiments in the unique microgravity environment of low earth orbit. In microgravity we can study physical phenomena that are masked by gravity’s effects here on earth. We can produce larger, more uniform crystals that can be grown here on earth that may be used to identify the structure of proteins, that may be used to improve the efficiency of chemical processes, that may be used to build faster, better semiconductor devices. We can study the behavior of fluids in the absence on gravity to better understand how they behave here on earth. Our 16 day science mission was a pathfinder for the International Space Station, which will give us a permanent laboratory in space. Just as the Hubble Space Telescope is allowing us to learn more about the origin of our universe, on the International Space Station we will be learning things that may allow us to improve our economy, our lives and, in a sense control our destiny. Like Columbus, we may not find what we expect, but I guarantee that the work will pay off and that the benefits will far outweigh the risks.

As my crewmates and I began training for that mission, learning about the experiments we were going to conduct on orbit, we talked about how we got where we are today. In my case how did a kid from Alabama, who worked in a hamburger restaurant to pay college tuition, become interested in science and ultimately get a ride into space? For each of us it was the same: one or two teachers in middle school or high school who had a profound influence on us and on our careers. As we celebrate the achievements of these fine young men and women here today, I would like to offer a special thanks to the teachers who prepared them to begin their studies here; without whose dedication and perseverance when perhaps the fruitfulness of their efforts may have been in doubt, Mr. Jefferson’s University could not produce the quality graduates we have here this morning.

And finally, I congratulate each of the new graduates here today. You have worked hard and completed a challenging academic program. UVa has prepared you well for your journey to the stars. Good luck and Godspeed!