William Thornton, Faison and the Morehead Planetarium.
From earliest childhood William could never let a plane fly over without searching for it - and still can’t. Scientific education began with the funny papers. The first space flights were in daydreams with Buck Rodgers. When Dick Tracy had a fire from a short circuit his father had the village electrician explain. By age 4 or 5 education by observation became more serious. Two examples are the concepts of control by negative feedback, a fundamental mechanism essential to technology and life itself, and evolution, basis of life as we know it. Both were learned with pleasure by observation. William and his father loved engines, big engines, and one afternoon at a big steam engine they watched the flyball governor control the steam and speed and sound of this machine and he learned more in 5 minutes about feedback than some engineering colleagues did in 6 or 7 years at MIT. There was a marl pit on their woodland with a great variety of prehistoric marine fossils. With such examples, evolution came as naturally as breathing until one afternoon in the seventh grade. Teacher, “How can anyone believe that people came from monkeys?!” William, “Where else could they come from?” The raucous argument which followed with the teacher and the remainder of the entire class consumed the rest of the afternoon – and was not infrequently repeated on a variety of subjects throughout his professional life.
Formal education began with “Miss Lena” Faison’s preschool Sunday school class with stories better than funny papers. It was William’s introduction to a lifelong study of writings by People of the Book. Learning to read was slow and difficult but by the second grade it had become a lasting obsession. On an errand to the third grade some little blue backed pamphlets with real stories of science were discovered. There were explanations of weight and gravity, how people would one day really fly in space and how boats floated. A day or two later he built a boat out of clay that floated and 30 years later built the first scales that could weight people and things in space without weight.
Unfortunately there were essentially no library books on science in Faison High School, just some 25 year old encyclopedia.
A word about education in Faison, a tradition began in 1840 with James Sprunt a Scottish Presbyterian missionary. Two penniless orphaned aunts, pupils in the Faison Academy, had managed doctorates from Columbia during the Civil Reconstruction period. That small town has produced a remarkable number of college graduates, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, far in excess of its size.
When eleven, William’s father died and work began, selling papers, loading trucks, etcetera for 15¢/hr. A movie theatre came to town during the war and in his 9th and 10th grades he became the sole projectionist. A love of his life, electronics, was encountered in the equipment there. When the war ended and the theater closed, a radio-TV-electronics shop was started that saw him through high school and college.
At UNC a number of poor decisions were made, such as going out for football without ever having had a football uniform on. Dumb persistence led to becoming captain of the meatball squad who scrimmaged with a nationally ranked team all week, arguably as the only nonprofessional.
On Fridays, after classes Bill hitchhiked to Faison and worked in the shop to make enough money to eat with the following week, by fixing radios and TVs for people to see and hear the Tar Heels play on Saturday. Sundays might have accounted for such weekend travel madness for there were the trees and churches and houses and the woods of childhood. Goddard had his cherry tree to climb and dream of his rockets and space, and William had a much larger pine to climb and see the western sky and dream of airplanes and space, before riding the Sunday evening bus back to Chapel Hill.
An unexpected pleasure at UNC was watching construction of a planetarium at UNC. He had been fortunate enough to see the Hayden Planetarium on a visit to New York and was surprised that N.C. was going to have such a facility. Seeing hidden aspects of the night sky so vividly displayed recalled his father’s explanation of sunsets, moon, skies and dawns seen in Faison.
A good decision was joining the Air Force ROTC for it aided tuition and by graduation kept him out the mud in Korea and provided the first opportunity to do things that hadn’t been done before. A few weeks after leaving UNC Bill found himself in the world’s then largest aircraft in charge of a squad of air police and a decontamination truck that would protect the population from real weapons of mass destruction in case anything happened to the plane in front carrying the weapons.
The next assignment was to the flight test optics lab where he combined radar and optics to allow realistic training and scoring of America’s first radar guided rocket firing jets. This was a first real development and USAF gave him an appropriate decoration.
He had decided that medicine could benefit from electronics and returned to Chapel Hill and NCMH. It soon became obvious that an MD was needed to do such work. Also, money was needed to pursue an English lady who was returning to London.
The next move was to California where start ups to reproduce his USAF target systems and a medical electronics company were done.
An MCAT score finally convinced the UNC admissions committee that he could do medical school and he returned to UNC with his British wife and first of two sons. Two thirds of the time was spent on medical school and one third on medical electronics.
By the end of the first year with Dr. Davis’ support, every operating suite in NCMH was equipped with EKG monitors and radio telemetry, a world’s first. Between second and third year the world’s first automated EKG analyzer was designed and used. One of the family pleasures in this time was going to the Planetarium for every new program.
On graduation the Siren called again. This time it was the USAF space program, the Manned Orbiting Lab, and a chance to fly. He began a series of developments and discoveries in the MOL program and continued them when selected as a Scientist astronaut for NASA, North Carolina’s first astronaut. One of the first NASA trips was to the Morehead Planetarium where all the astronauts had been trained in star identification for navigation around the Earth and to the Moon and back. There were also trips to the planetarium after flights on Challenger in 1983 and 1985. In 1994 he was medically retired and went to the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, teaching cardiology with his computer based program which allows students to see, feel and hear the heart as they would in patients. He is now as adjunct professor at UTMB in the space medicine division and also writing a book for NASA on the effects of spaceflight on people.
William Thornton grew up in one of the smallest towns and smallest schools in the state during the depression, but the land was rich and the town was rich in history with a tradition of learning. Some of the most valuable lessons were hands on experience in that small town. He went on to develop some 50 patents in aviation, space and medicine, become a physician, scientist, astronaut and supersonic jet pilot with 2300 hours pilot time.
There is a much larger world of opportunities today in many fields. The girls and boys of today do not have to become astronauts to find adventure for it awaits them in education, farming, medicine, science and other pursuits. Space flight around the Earth will become routine as some humans push on to explore the solar system.
One of the most important institutions in this expanding world of opportunity is the Morehead Planetarium which in a unique way shows young and old minds what is out there - far better than the funny papers of 80 years ago. Equally important it can also teach in unique ways the intellectual skills that are required to explore the skies the planetarium so beautifully and realistically displays.William "Bill" Thornton