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Meet the Dean: Fall 2013 Academic Dean Traverses Space and Sea

Academic Dean Kathy Thornton is finding the transition from space to sea fairly easy and enjoyable on her first SAS voyage.

Long before she boarded the MV Explorer as Academic Dean of the Fall 2013 voyage,  Kathy Thornton floated through space as an astronaut.  Dean Thornton served as a NASA astronaut for 12 years, starting in 1984. She traveled outside our atmosphere four times, including once to work on the Hubble Telescope, and logged almost 24 hours in spacewalks.  She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010, only the third woman to hold this honor.

Despite her space missions, Dean Thornton is as excited as any shipmate to join Semester at Sea’s (SAS) 50th anniversary voyage as a first-time participant.  We spoke to Dean Thornton about SAS, outer space and more.

Q: How are you adapting to life at sea?
A: You know, I tried to imagine, before I left, what it’d be like, the first few days, the first day of class—and it has been so much better than what I had imagined.  It’s so much smoother—everybody is friendly and outgoing and cooperative and flexible, so it’s been an amazing experience so far.

Q: How would you say life on the MV Explorer is different from life at home?
A:  Well the commute is definitely great—can’t beat that commute—from my cabin to wherever it is that I’m going. I think it’s both easier to find people and harder.  If there’s somebody you want to find, faculty don’t have offices.  But on the other hand, you might just run into them, walking in the hallways.  So, I think the serendipitous meetings are more common and more productive.  The targeted meetings are a little bit harder to make happen.

Q: How does being on ship like the MV Explorer compare to being on a space shuttle?
A: There’s a lot more room here.  We didn’t have any trouble with contact [on the space shuttle] because we were in close contact all the time.

Q: How is the food on a space shuttle vs the ship?
A: It’s not bad [in space].  I think it becomes repetitive after a while.  Some of it is in its natural state—like peanut butter, and jelly, and tortillas, and crackers.  Some of it is freeze-dried food.  Some of it is ready to eat in military rations.  Everything is a little bit mushy.  I like vegetables—I love them, but I don’t like mushy vegetables.  Broccoli with cheese was green stuff with cheese whiz and cauliflower was white stuff with cheese whiz—so a lot of mushy stuff.  I couldn’t wait to get back to have something that we’re used to having like pizza, and hamburgers—the comfort foods.  So, here [on the ship], you’re not so removed from having the foods that you might have every day [at home].

Q: What is a cabin on a space shuttle like?
A: There aren’t any cabins on the shuttle.  There are two workspaces—one on the mid-deck and one on the flight deck and, combined, they might be the volume of a minivan.  There were six of us, so think of six of your best friends in a minivan and there’s always contact.  There’s also a lavatory in the back but there are only two places anyone can be—on the deck or in the lavatory, so you didn’t really miss anybody.

Q: You have a long list of awards.  Are there any of which you are especially proud or fond?
A: The Astronaut Hall of Fame.  It’s a peer award, so you have to be elected by your peers.  George “Pinky” Nelson [faculty on the Fall 2013 voyage] is also in the Hall of Fame.”

Q: How is a shipboard learning community like Semester at Sea different from other academic communities, such as a traditional college campus?
A: It’s obviously a lot tighter, geographically and physically.  We’re much closer together.  It’s really interesting, in that, at a university you have a sociology department and a psychology department and a history department.  Here, we have one combined department, so there is a lot more opportunity for interdisciplinary discussions and I hope that those are going to develop—where one faculty member invites someone else into his or her class to talk about the topic from a different perspective.  I think that this is a wonderful place to do that.  It’s a tremendous opportunity that you don’t see on many college campuses.

  • Education

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