Introducing electronics into medicine

After spending more than two years in the USAF in secure laboratories, aircraft, or in desolate test stations, Thornton decided to introduce electronics into medicine, rather than fly. His work began at the UNC's Memorial Hospital, where he worked, briefly, in their Departments of Anaesthesiology, Cardiology and Neurology. It was here, in July 1955, that he first met Jennifer Fowler from Hertfordshire in England, who was part of a medical exchange programme, and a chase ensued. ''I now needed money to pursue a medical education - and Jennifer.''

In 1956, with these issues to spur him on, Thornton developed and ran the Electronics Division of Del Mar Engineering Laboratories in Los Angeles, where for the next three years he designed and produced military electronics under his patents. During this time, he was able to convince the president of the company to put some of its profits into a medical electronics subsidiary, which he designed and ran. It subsequently became Del Mar Electronics, an international leader in medical electronics.

On 14 June 1958, Thornton and Jennifer were married in London, England, after which he returned to UNC's medical school, ''where my medical education was shared with continued medical electronics development.'' Bill and Jennifer would have two children; William Simon, born 15 March 1959, and James Fallon, born 4 January 1961.

In his first year back at UNC, Thornton designed and established the first clinical anaesthesia monitoring of patients and in his second year, the first automatic, online analysis of electro-cardiograms (EKGs). This system was patented and later applied to Holter EKG monitoring. The basic principles are in worldwide use today.

A symposium at the USAF Aerospace Medical Division in San Antonio, Texas, turned Thornton's attention to space medicine. ''Al Shepard had just made his flight and it was too good a show to miss. Though I didn't tell anybody, by then I had decided I wanted to fly, including space flight.''

Thornton was awarded his Doctor of Medicine degree from UNC on 3 June 1963. Shortly after accepting an appointment to the university's faculty, where he became an instructor and worked on medical applications of his developments, he decided to actively pursue a career in space flight medicine. At that time, the Air Force seemed to offer the best chance and in 1964, now returned to active service with the rank of captain, he completed a rotating internship at the USAF Wilford Hall Hospital at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, and a primary flight surgeon's course in aerospace medicine at nearby Brooks AFB.

It was at Brooks, in their Aerospace Medical Division, that Thornton's primary responsibility became the development of medical experiments and instrumentation for the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory programme. This included the design and development of personal EKG/EEG systems with automated analysis, non-invasive blood studies and exercise equipment and programmes, evaluated in conjunction with Dr. Kenneth Cooper.

Another major project, urgently required by NASA, was the development of the first successful non-gravimetric mass measuring system (''weighing in weightlessness'')

for a manned Earth-orbiting programme that would later evolve into Project Skylab. Developed and patented in 1965, the system was eventually flown on Skylab and some STS flights, and would remain a standard NASA instrument. Thornton subsequently became a principal investigator for the civilian space agency.

By 1966, the MOL programme was crumbling. Thornton called Deke Slayton, asking if there was any possibility of becoming a candidate for their scientist-astronaut programme. He told Slayton he had not applied for selection in the 1965 group, as his age even then was a few months beyond the established and rigidly applied maximum. Slayton's advice was to hold out for a while longer, as NASA would shortly initiate another scientist-astronaut selection. He gave a further assurance that previously disqualifying size and age limits would be relaxed significantly, ''in exceptional cases.''

In a follow-up letter dated 18 August 1966, Slayton seemed to be on Thornton's side. ''You have nothing to lose by trying. The Academy will provide us with a recommended list from which we will make final selection, so your first chore is to impress the Academy with your scientific competence.'' In light of his later selection, it would seem he did just that.


Of the 1965 selection, both Birky and DuPraw thought about trying again in 1967. As Birky recalled in 2002: ''I was invited to apply again. I talked to DuPraw at the time, and he was also invited. It seemed likely that I'd be selected the second time, because there was reason to believe that I was rejected because of inferior stereoscopic depth perception, and NASA was going to become less prickly about physical requirements. (Also at my interview, one of the interviewers pointed out that the pioneering pilot Wiley Post had only one good eye and hence no stereoscopic depth perception at all.) But I didn't apply again because the budget for Skylab and lunar missions had been cut and it seemed likely that I'd never get a mission. I believe Ernie also did not apply.''27

Other short-listed candidates for this selection are not so well documented but have included:

Donald A. Beattie: Born in 1931. Became a geologist and served in the US Navy as a jet pilot, and worked as an exploration geologist for Mobile Oil before joining NASA as a lunar aerospace technologist, Office of Manned Spaceflight, Manned Lunar Mission Studies at NASA HQ in Washington DC. He worked at NASA from 1963 to 1973 in a variety of management positions, finally as programme manager of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP). He has also worked at the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, and later as a private consultant. He authored Taking Science to the Moon in 2001.

Peter Eltgroth: Attained a BS in physics from CalTech in 1962 and a PhD (also in physics) from Harvard University in 1966, joining the Lawrence Livermore

National Laboratory in 1967 after failing to be selected to the space programme. His expertise lies in computational and mathematical physics with an emphasis on numerical algorithms. He has published a number of papers and worked in a variety of fields during almost forty years at Livermore. These fields included relativistic fluid dynamics, plasma physics, massively parallel computing and innovating algorithms. He is also a qualified flight instructor. His initial work at Livermore was in the original T (Theoretical Physics) Division, and prior to taking up his current position he was Group Leader for Computational Physics in the Center for Applied Science Computing. In October 2001 he became director of that organisation, which is part of the Computing Applications and Research Department in the Computation Directorate at Livermore. He applied for both the 1965 and 1967 selections, but in both cases, despite self-financed corrective operations, reoccurring kidney stones was an insurmountable problem in his application. He was at the Manned Spacecraft Center as an NRC postdoctoral fellow during the selection process. He remembered England, Allen and Musgrave at the time of his application.

Donald T. Frazier: Currently Professor and Director of the Science Outreach and Career Opportunities Center, University of Kentucky College of Medicine. He gained a PhD from the University of Kentucky in 1964. Frazier wanted to fly high performance jets, but was disqualified for medical reasons. His current research focuses on how information emanating from respiratory afferents is taken in the central nervous system and used to control the drive to breathe.28

Everett K. Gibson, Jr.: Gibson received his BS and MS degrees in chemistry in 1963 and 1965 respectively at Texas Tech University, and his PhD in geochemistry from Arizona State University in 1969. He visited Eugene Shoemaker at USGS and saw the prototype of the MOLAB (Mobile Laboratory) being developed for extended lunar exploration missions. He received a ''no thanks'' letter from Dr. Charles Berry informing him that his vision was a disqualifying factor. Gibson subsequently went to work at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at MSC on 24 July 1969, just in time to participate in the Apollo 11 ''splashdown party.'' NASA Road 1 was closed to cars and a wall-to-wall party spilled over into it! In 1970 he accepted a position in the Geochemistry branch at NASA, and worked in the LRL for Apollo 14. Since 1983 Dr. Gibson has been a principal investigator in NASA's Planetary Biology Program, and in March 1993 was promoted to the Senior Scientist position at NASA-JSC.29

R. Thomas Giuli: Born in 1936 in Lansing, Missouri, he received a doctorate in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Stockholm, Sweden. He was an astronomer at JSC. On 26 June 1974 Giuli, then of the Science and Applications Directorate, was appointed Apollo-Soyuz Test Project Program Scientist, responsible for coordinating all scientific aspects of the joint mission.30 In 1977 he was nominated as one of eighteen potential American payload specialists for

Spacelab 1 (along with Bill Thornton) [NASA News 77-83 5 December 1977] but was not selected.31

Albert R. Hibbs (1924-2003): Known worldwide as the ''voice of JPL'' Albert Roach Hibbs was born on 19 October 1924 in Akron, Ohio, and died aged 78 on 24 February 2003 from complications following heart surgery. A 1945 physics graduate of CalTech, he received his Master's degree in mathematics at the University of Chicago in 1947 and a PhD in physics at CalTech in 1955. He studied under and wrote with his friend Richard Feynman. Hibbs joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory operated in Pasadena by CalTech in 1950. Following a range of technical assignments he became a systems designer for Explorer 1, America's first successful satellite launch in January 1958. He became the NASA spokesman who explained the intricacies of space flight in layman's terms, describing the missions of the early Ranger and Surveyor missions to the Moon and Mariner missions to Mercury, Venus and Mars. He became host of NBC's children's programme Exploring in 1960 and wrote over seventy scientific and technical papers as well as two text books. After failing to be selected to the astronaut programme he continued his work at JPL until he retired in 1986 as Director of Space Science.32

John A. O'Keefe: Born 13 October 1916 and died 8 September 2000 aged 83. In 1937, he earned his BS degree in astronomy from Harvard and in 1941 his PhD in astronomy from the University of Chicago. Rejected for military service during WWII, he joined the US Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian and began a new career as a geodesist. From 1945 until 1958, he was Chief of the Research and Analysis Branch, Army Map Service. In 1958 he joined NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as Assistant Chief of the theoretical division, where he remained for the rest of his career. After O'Keefe and his colleagues analysed the orbit of Vanguard 1 in 1959, he realised that the Earth's gravitational field affected the satellite's trajectory, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. This led him to coin the phrase ''the pear-shaped Earth''.33 The champion of the idea that tektites originated from the Moon, O'Keefe was supported in his nomination for the scientist-astronaut programme by Egbert King of NASA, despite the fact that he favoured the Earth-impact theory. In a 29 November 1966 memo King stated ''my comments should be regarded in light of my contact with O'Keefe which has been in lunar and geosciences only. Geosciences is not O'Keefe's strong field ... I am certain that he would perform with dedication any task that was assigned to him as a member of a space flight team. I think he would be most valuable as an astronomical observer in Earth orbit or under possible lunar base conditions. His qualifications as an astronomical observer are confirmed by the opinion of other astronomers. He has an outstanding command of the entire field of space


Gerald K. O'Neill (1927-1991): Gerald Kitchen O'Neill was a physicist with a specialisation in high-energy particle physics and its application to navigation and space colonisation. A Professor of Physics at Princeton University, his 1997 book The High Frontier popularised the idea of looking at near-Earth space ''not as a void but as a cultural medium rich in matter and energy.'' O'Neill argued strongly that the colonisation of space was an obvious solution to many of Earth's problems such as over-population, fossil fuel depletion and pollution. He was a supporter of creating space colonies equidistant between the Earth and the Moon known as Lagrange 5 or L5. A pilot, inventor, author, advisor, entrepreneur and teacher, his ashes were aboard one of the Space Service Inc. memorial space flights launched in 1997.

George C. Pimentel (1922-1989): George Claude Pimentel completed high school in 1939 and gained his chemistry major at UCLA in 1943. After joining the Manhattan Project in 1943 and realising the scope of the project, he enlisted in the US Navy and served on submarines, returning to Berkeley for graduate work in infrared spectroscopy in 1946, and gaining his PhD in Chemistry in 1949. He then joined the faculty at Berkeley, where he remained an active member until his death in 1989. In the 1950s, he had developed the matrix isolation techniques to trap free radicals. In the 1960s he completed studies of fast reactions, unlocking the secret for converting chemical energy directly into laser light. At the age of forty-five, he applied to be a scientist-astronaut and underwent the demanding physical and intellectual tests. The National Academy of Sciences ranked him first among its thousand or so applicants, but a minor abnormality in one retina precluded him from further consideration. When Pimentel was asked his reaction to a two-year, high-risk trip to Mars he instantly replied: ''Where do I sign up?'' In his lifetime he would receive many awards as an outstanding teacher and champion of science education.

Richard Paul Von Buedeingen, USN Retired: Born 14 September 1938 in Rochester, NH, he gained his Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Wisconsin and subsequently served in the Medical Corps.

These applicants never got the chance to apply again as this was the final selection under NASA's "scientist-astronaut" programme. In 1969 seven former MOL pilots transferred to NASA, and the next astronaut selection was not until 1978, over a decade later, to provide crews for the Space Shuttle.

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