Starship Trooper

Marine veteran and alumnus Norman Thagard shares his journey from war zone to the cosmos

Photo collage of historical photos of Norman Thagard, M.D., serving in the Vietnam War as a fighter pilot and on space missions as a NASA astronaut. The collage is overlaid with images of stars and stripes with a large photo of Dr. Thagard dressed in his U.S. Marines uniform as a young man.
Illustration by Jay Caldwell/UT Southwestern Medical Center; Source images: Provided by Norman Thagard

When Norman Thagard, M.D. (Medicine ’77), received the phone call of his dreams in 1978, he should have felt exuberant. Instead, he felt depressed.

NASA was on the line. After a rigorous selection process, the agency had tapped the former fighter pilot-turned-doctor for a space mission.

“I had wanted to be an astronaut since I was kid,” he said. “And now, as it was coming true, I felt depressed, thinking, ‘OK, I’ve been accepted to the space program. What else is there left to do?’ I had realized my ultimate career goal at age 34, and there was nothing better to accomplish for the entire remainder of my life.”

The 80-year-old UT Southwestern Medical Center alumnus went on to do it all, joining five space missions and logging more than 140 days in space. While his extraterrestrial exploits have been well-documented, experiences in Vietnam and at UT Southwestern shaped him as an astronaut and scientist.

With a national draft looming in 1968, Dr. Thagard joined the Marines and became a naval aviator. A recruiter dissuaded him from joining the Air Force or the Army. He flew an F-4 Phantom, fulfilling his goal of becoming a fighter pilot.

Norman Thagard wearing
Fresh off his first solo flight as a student pilot, Norman Thagard stands on the tarmac at Naval Air Station Saufley Field, Florida, in 1968. Behind him is a Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, the U.S. Marines' primary flight trainer. Provided by Norman Thagard
James Thornton
Part of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115, Captain Norman Thagard, left, and Captain N.K. "Jake" Jacobus pose in front of their F-4 Phantom inside a hangar at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam, in 1969. Provided by Norman Thagard

Over the course of 166 combat missions, he narrowly escaped death twice. Once, while flying low to avoid radar detection while on a precision bombing run, he nearly slammed into the ridgeline of a tropical mountain range.

“I really thought that I was gonna buy it that day,” he said. “I simply thought to myself, ‘So this is how it’s all going to end.’”

The other happened during a successful mission to destroy a bridge along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the logistical network of roads that supplied manpower and materiel to the Viet Cong during the war. As his plane neared the target, an anti-aircraft battery camouflaged in the jungle suddenly lit up the sky with tracer rounds. Dr. Thagard vividly recalled the bullets zipping just inches past his left wing.

Both times, he cheated death. Some of his flight buddies weren’t as fortunate.

“We lost three airplanes in my squadron,” he said. “While you don’t like it, at some level you have to accept it. Tragedy comes with the territory.”

Navigating the skies over Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin was challenging. Coming to grips with the anti-war sentiment sweeping the post-war United States brought its own difficulties.

Dr. Thagard applied and was accepted to all four medical schools in the UT System at age 30, remarkable for a time when most medical schools turned down non-traditional students older than 25. He chose UT Southwestern. Short some prerequisites, he enrolled in an organic chemistry course at Florida State University prior to moving to Dallas.

In class, he showed a fellow student a photo from Vietnam. In a flash of hostility, a teaching assistant strode into the audience and snatched the photo from his hand, shouting about the injustice of the war and how the university was no place for veterans.

Wearing a black mortarboard and graduation gown and holidning a rolled up diploma in his left hand, Norman Thagard, M.D., shakes the hand of a nonpictured man, UT Southwestern President Charles Sprague, M.D.
Norman Thagard, foreground photo, shakes the hand of UT Southwestern President Charles C. Sprague, M.D., not pictured, during the Medical School commencement ceremony held on Eugene McDermott Plaza at UT Southwestern Medical Center on June 4, 1977. In the background, a photo from the ceremony. Illustration by UT Southwestern Medical Center; Source photos: Norman Thagard, Special Collection Library and Archives/UT Southwestern Medical Center

His four years at UT Southwestern stood in stark contrast. He never felt like his military service was a strike against him.

“Once I was enrolled at UT Southwestern, we were all the same,” he said.

Soon after arriving on campus, he discovered parallels between military aviation and medicine.

“The consequences of inattention or dereliction of duty are measured in lives in both professions,” he said. “In medicine, as with flying, you need to train and always do what is expected to discharge your responsibilities faithfully. If you’re going to be a doctor, you’ve got to take care of your patients, and in the military, you’ve always got to be doing the best job for the country.”

Dr. Thagard went on to answer the call from NASA, completing a notable career replete with storied names that included the first U.S. woman in space, the late Sally Ride. On his last space mission in 1995, he orbited Earth in Russia’s Mir space station, collecting biological samples from the crew to study the effects of long-duration spaceflight. However, much of his research was rendered useless when an on-board freezer used to store the samples malfunctioned.

Astronauts Sally Ride, Robert Crippen, Frederick Hauck, Norman Thagard, and John Fabian pose for a group photo on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Challenger with a bag of jelly beans.
Mission Specialist Norman Thagard, M.D., second from right, poses with the crew of STS-7 on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Challenger on June 25, 1983. His fellow astronauts include, from left, Sally K. Ride, Ph.D., Robert L Crippen, Frederick H. Hauck, and John M. Fabian. The crew is enjoying a bag of jelly beans, held by Dr. Ride, provided by President Ronald Reagan's White House. NASA

“A lot of what I’d been scheduled to do sort of went out the window. I wound up with not enough to do,” he said.

James Thornton, M.D. (Medicine '89), a Professor of Plastic Surgery at UT Southwestern who served as a U.S. Navy flight surgeon for 25 years, remembered Dr. Thagard from childhood. Dr. Thornton’s late father, William E. Thornton, M.D., was an astronaut and a contemporary of Dr. Thagard. The two men flew together as mission specialists during the seventh flight of Space Shuttle Challenger.

Astronauts Frederick Gregory, Robert Overmyer, Don Lind, Norman Thagard, William E. Thornton, Taylor Wang, and Lodewijk van den Berg pose for a group photo inside the Long Science Module for Spacelab 3 located in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Norman Thagard, M.D., upside down and center, poses with William E. Thornton, M.D., third from right, and the crew of STS-51-B inside the Long Science Module for Spacelab 3 located in the cargo bay of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger on May 2, 1985. Other crew members include, from left, Frederick D. Gregory, Robert F. Overmyer, Don L. Lind, Ph.D., Taylor G. Wang, Ph.D., and Lodewijk van den Berg, Ph.D. NASA

Dr. James Thornton remembers the two men collaborating on experiments for upcoming space missions. At the time, scientists had seemingly unchecked creativity to explore, and the two men wanted to make the most of their journeys.

“Although I was still in college, I helped with some electronic fabrication as they built some prototypes out in the home workshop of our garage,” Dr. James Thornton said. “They were directly involved in putting some of the electronics together for their space experiments. It was just two super-dedicated guys chipping away at projects, and not in a flashy way."

Now a resident of Florida, Dr. Thagard considers his life well-lived. Married 58 years, he and his wife raised a family of three sons and nine grandchildren. He still visits Johnson Space Center for annual physicals as part of the Longitudinal Study of Astronaut Health. On the Mir mission, he lost significant bone and muscle mass, along with about 20% of his red blood cells.

Norman Thagard, M.D., gives a talk to UT Southwestern students.
Norman Thagard, M.D., shares his experiences as a physician and astronaut with graduate students in the Eugene McDermott Lecture Halls at UT Southwestern Medical Center on Sept. 15, 2017. David Gresham/UT Southwestern Medical Center

“As a doctor, I understood the physical consequences of accepting the job,” he said. “I wouldn’t have explored space if I hadn’t become a doctor at UT Southwestern. They took a risk on me as an older student and a veteran, and that allowed me to take calculated risks later in life.”

Through military service, education, and space travel, Dr. Thagard beat the odds in a high-flying life that took him on low-altitude bombing runs and reached beyond the stratosphere. It’s a life he’ll never forget.

“I was fortunate to make it home,” he said.

  • Dr. James Thornton holds the Ellen L. Heck Chair in Tissue Transplantation.