In the summer of 1972, Dr. Thornton took part in the Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test (SMEAT). SMEAT sought to test medical equipment and gather data in preparation for Skylab. Here, Dr. Thornton (standing) is preparing Karol J. Bobko for an experiment that tested the effects of negative pressure on the lower body. Courtesy NASA.
Thornton wore this blue NASA flight suit during the Spacelab 3 mission in 1985. Courtesy North Carolina Museum of History.
John Kiker's contributions to the American space program were not just limited to the development of the piggyback system. Early in his NASA career, Kiker and his colleagues designed the three-parachute landing system of the Apollo program. This image captures the parachute system in action during the return of the Apollo 16 crew. Courtesy NASA.
With the help of colleagues, Kiker (right) first tested his piggyback design with models. Using a 1/40th scale model of the space shuttle and a model airplane, Kiker evaluated flight control of the mated system and tested the separation of the two during a test flight in December 1975. Courtesy NASA.
Several full-scale tests of the piggyback system were conducted in 1977 at the Dryden Flight Research Center (now Armstrong Flight Research Center). Here, the shuttle Enterprise glides above its 747 carrier just moments after separation on September 13, 1977. Courtesy NASA.
Soon, piggyback flights became one of the most iconic sights of the shuttle era. Here, a 747 shuttles Atlantis back to Kennedy Space Center in 1998. NASA estimates that Kiker's design saved the government about $19 million every time a shuttle had to be transported. Courtesy NASA.
Few people pursue their dreams with a zeal and perseverance that could match Smith. At just sixteen years old, an age at which most teens are preoccupied with learning to drive, Smith took his first solo flight. He is pictured on that day in 1961 with his flight instructor Bob Burrows. Courtesy Smith Family.
On April 30, 1961, Mike Smith took his first solo flight, earning his pilot's license. In a letter to his friend Bobby, the sixteen-year-old farm boy from Beaufort could barely contain his excitement: "I went flying alright, I soloed!" Courtesy Smith Family.
Smith entered the United States Naval Academy in 1963. He graduated four years later, ranked 108 in his class of 893. Richard Purnell, an academy classmate of Smith's, later recalled that upon meeting him, one of the first things Smith told him was "I am going to be an astronaut."
Following his graduation from the Naval Postgraduate School, Smith went on to attend flight school, earning his wings in 1969. "Whenever I was conscious of what I wanted to do," Smith once said in an interview, "I wanted to fly. I can never remember anything else I wanted to do but flying."
In 1972 and 1973, Smith served as an attack pilot assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War, flying 198 missions before returning home to attend test pilot school at the Naval Air Test Center in Maryland. He is pictured here aboard the Kitty Hawk during his wartime deployment.
NASA selected Smith as an astronaut candidate in May 1980, about the time this portrait was taken. Following a year of training, Smith qualified as a shuttle pilot. The call he long awaited finally came in 1985 when he was tapped to pilot the Challenger on its tenth mission the following year.
Mike Smith absolutely loved to fly. As quarterback of his high school football team, he once called a timeout just to watch a plane fly overhead. Here he is post-flight (left, foreground), brandishing a huge grin, in September 1985. To his right are astronauts Barbara Morgan, Christa McAuliffe, and Francis Scobee. Courtesy NASA.
The space shuttle Challenger launched for its tenth mission on January 28, 1986. Seventy-three seconds into its flight, an O-ring seal in one of the solid rocket boosters failed, resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its crew. Courtesy NASA.
Following the accident, letters and cards poured in to Beaufort from across the nation. Sometimes the letters came from strangers, sometimes from friends and acquaintances of days gone by. One local resident wrote Mike's brother Pat to share the wonderful memories she had of knowing Mike when the two were learning to fly. Courtesy Smith Family.
The horror of the Challenger accident played out in real time on televisions in both living rooms and classrooms, shocking not only American adults, but the nation's children as well. In the days following the accident, a high school senior named Sonya, from Hookerton, North Carolina, penned a beautiful letter to the Smith family. "My brother," she wrote, in part, "who is exactly 1 year & 2 days older than me, has wanted to become an astronaut ever since we were real little. Now he's more determined than ever." Courtesy Smith Family.
Recovery personnel retrieved the crew's official flight kit—a sixty-pound kit containing souvenirs and personal mementos—from the surface of the ocean just fifty hours after the accident. Inside that kit was this state flag, given to Mike Smith by the North Carolina Science Teachers Association. The flag's blue union has faded over the years, likely due to exposure to salt water.
Mike's wife Jane bestowed the flag to the care of Gov. James G. Martin during a ceremony on Veterans Day in 1986. In his address, Governor Martin said the flag "always brings to my mind the state motto 'Esse Quam Videri,' which translated could also have been a statement about Mike Smith—a man who exemplified this motto, 'To be rather than to seem.'" Courtesy North Carolina Museum of History.
Smith's exemplary service during his years in the Navy, the Vietnam War, and with NASA garnered him quite a few commendations. The awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, thirteen Strike Flight Air Medals, three Air Medals, and the Navy Commendation Medal with “V.” Smith additionally received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously in 2004 by President George Bush.
Since the close of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA has had to rely upon the Russian space program to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). North Carolinian Christina Koch (right) made the trip to the ISS alongside NASA colleague Nick Hague (left) aboard Soyuz MS-12. As is required by the Russian government, the spaceflight was commanded by cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin (center). Courtesy NASA.
The second half of the Expedition 59 crew launched for the International Space Station on March 14, 2019. They are pictured here in front of their Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft during pre-launch activities in February 2019. From left to right: Christina Koch, of North Carolina; Alexey Ovchinin, of Russia; and Nick Hague, of Kansas. Courtesy NASA.
American passengers of the Soyuz spacecraft wear Sokol spacesuits, modern-day variants of a design that debuted during the era of the Soviet Union. Taken the day of the launch, this photo shows Koch going through pre-flight checks and preparations in her Sokol suit at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Courtesy NASA.