As a physician with a background in exercise and an investigator of one of the experiments to be flown on the station, Bill Thornton could draw upon years of personal research and his development of techniques, procedures and hardware for exercise in space, as well as assignments in the USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program.
In the planning for SMEAT, a total of 412 hours of training were allocated to each man. In reality, all three exceeded 500 hours, with Thornton recording 509.25 hours of training. Thornton has always been emphatic that without SMEAT, Skylab would have failed. The problems the SMEAT crew encountered and overcame during
the ground test saved so much time and alleviated so many difficulties that it is hard to see how the three live missions would have coped had this test not taken place. One item that received Thornton's full evaluation - to the point of collapse - was the bicycle ergometer. For several reasons, the one used in the ground test was not as structurally sound as the one planned to fly the Skylab. Thornton has always underlined the need for anything that is to be flown in space to be adequately tested on the ground beforehand, and with as accurate a duplicate training model as is possible. So, if SMEAT was to establish operating procedures and data for the space missions, then the equipment in the chamber should achieve this standard. Clearly the ergometer was one item of ground equipment that had to be used to demonstrate that second best
simply would not do. Sure enough, the ergometer used by the SMEAT crew failed during the test and had to be removed from the chamber for unscheduled repairs. When it was returned to the chamber, Thornton's frustration at the inadequacy of the machine and the waste of time and effort in not providing a suitable machine in the first place was taken out on the ergometer. This time, he tested it to destruction.
After SMEAT, Thornton continued his work on developing crew health regimes. He was especially concerned about the condition of the leg muscles of the first two Skylab crews upon their return. In a move to alleviate the problem for the final crew on the longest mission yet, Thornton designed a simple (and economical) device to help maintain the condition of their leg muscles. A sheet of shiny Teflon was attached to the floor over which a sock-wearing crew member could slide their feet, while being held in place by elastic bungee cords. By adjusting these cords, varying loads could be applied to the exercise. This quickly prompted the crew to call the device ''Thornton's Revenge''. However, the positive results gained from this device served as the basis for more sophisticated equipment that has been employed on the Space Shuttle, and later on the International Space Station. Although it was a successful test, the kind of problems he experienced in SMEAT (with inadequate government-furnished equipment and bureaucratic hurdles) continually plagued Thornton for the next twenty years as he tried to provide effective and economical exercise and hygiene equipment for the Shuttle, Spacelab and Space Station.
Was this article helpful?