A bright and inquisitive boy, the future astronaut loved building devices and putting broken things back together - the more complicated, the better - and he had a
fascination with anything aeronautical. A lifelong friend, Anna Stroud Taylor, once said that he ''was always doing electronics ... and science, even as a child.''
Bill Thornton was just eleven years old when he lost his father, who himself had been orphaned as a teenager during the American Civil War reconstruction. Despite this, and at the cost of his own education, Thornton's father had raised two younger sisters who went on to become college professors, and a brother who became manager of the export division of an American cartel. Recalling his father, Thornton says: ''He undoubtedly was a determining factor in my interest in science and electro-mechanics, as well as an intense interest in nature, biology, and the universe.'' Assuming a mantle of responsibility, the young boy took on some odd jobs to help things along and make things a little easier for his mother.26
Other influences now began to shape his future. ''My education in space began when I discovered a series of science booklets in the third grade that included rockets and space travel, gravitational attraction and so forth.'' In 1943, after his public school education ended, he began attending a local combined school known as Faison High School. Here, he would find further influence and encouragement in his education. ''The teachers were real teachers in spite ofDepression-limited resources. I began work in the sixth grade with paper routes, and by eighth grade I was also a full-time motion picture projectionist with responsibility for the maintenance of sound and pictures equally in several theatres over a two-year period.''
By eleventh grade, Thornton had opened and began operating a radio electronics repair shop that would help finance his university education. In his last year of high school, and throughout college, he was supported entirely by weekend and vacation work in electronics. This included the design, installation and maintenance of entertainment, industrial and communication electronic systems. He later stated in his application to NASA that: ''informal study during this period has proved to be more than equivalent to a degree in electronic engineering.''
In 1948, Thornton undertook further studies at the University of North Carolina (UNC), where he gained his Bachelor of Science degree in physics on 2 June 1952. He also became a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) graduate with the USAF. College was, in his own words, ''a balance between survival, education, Air Force ROTC, and ill-considered participation in collegiate football without a scholarship.''
Following his graduation, and having completed his ROTC training with the rank of second lieutenant, Thornton served as Officer-in-charge of the Flight Test Photo Optics Instrumentation Laboratory at the Air Proving Ground, Eglin AFB. He would later become a consultant to Air Proving Ground Command on instrumentation for airborne fire control systems.
At Eglin, Thornton was involved with in-flight testing of all-weather interceptors, and he developed the first successful airborne target and evaluation missile scoring systems that were eventually standardised and used in all Free World air forces. During this period, he chalked up over a thousand hours in various crew functions during aircraft flight tests, and was proficient with a variety of aircraft systems, including airborne radar and armament systems. For this work, he was awarded his first patents and the USAF Legion of Merit.
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