From Hernando County to Mars; an interview with astronaut Shane Kimbrough

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From Hernando County to Mars; an interview with astronaut Shane Kimbrough

May 25, 2017 - 14:55
This photo was taken by astronaut R. Shane Kimbrough on the International Space Station.  You can see Southern Hills Plantation on the bottom right corner and the CEMEX-Brooksville Mine in the center.

On Friday May 12th, while his colleagues Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer were performing the 200th spacewalk at the International Space Station, astronaut Robert Shane Kimbrough was able to find some time to speak with us at The Hernando Sun. We ran an article last month about his time on the International Space Station.

Shane Kimbrough has a lot of family in the area. James Walt Kimbrough came to Hernando County in the early 1900’s and was a cattle and citrus farmer in Spring Lake. Recently, many of Shane’s cousins have appeared in The Hernando Sun high school sports section.

Shane visited his grandparents in Spring Lake often, “I visited them as a kid at least a month out of every summer… Christmas and Thanksgiving as well. We lived in the Atlanta area and my parents thought it was really important to spend time with the grandparents and other family members in that area as well as on my mom’s side over in Titusville.”

(02/03/2017) --- NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough is seen executing the SPHERES-Halo experiment aboard the International Space Station. The investigation uses two small, self-contained satellites (SPHERES) fitted with donut like rings to test wireless power transfer and formation flight using electromagnetic fields.

“They had a huge orange grove back in the day. It’s no longer, but it was really nice. Grew up kind of running around the orange grove with my cousins.”

Kimbrough says he gets to visit two or three times a year for various family get togethers. “I love going there always and [have] great memories of course and get to see family members,” he said.

“I love going out to Spring Lake to my grandparent’s old place. It’s still there and the family still owns it so it’s always a nice kind of peaceful place to go and get away from things. I think every time I’m in town I go to Papa Joe’s to eat. It’s always a favorite. Other than that it’s just hanging out with the family members at their houses. That’s always nice.”

It’s been a little over a month since Shane Kimbrough returned from a 173 day stint at the International Space Station where he served as commander. Thus far he is doing well. “I recovered fairly quickly compared to most folks. Everyone is a little different. You never know how it’s going to go, so I was fortunate enough to take just a few days until I was really feeling good... ”

Since returning from the space station, Kimbrough has gone through a lot of routine rehabilitation and debriefings. “For the first two weeks after the flight, it’s pretty much all medical testing and you start your rehabilitation, working out kind of getting your strength back. Now I’m in a month long period of debriefs. I’m continuing my rehabilitation and reconditioning physically, but most of the days I’m in debriefings for all the different systems on the space station.”

Kimbrough explained that this covers anything he did in particular in regards to experiments, spacewalks and robotic arm operations. “All those people want to know what worked, what didn’t work, how can we make it better for the next crew and all that. It takes about a month to get through all the debriefings.”

He said he’ll be flying to Russia later this month to do debriefings with the Russian training team. “Once that’s done, from June to October we hit the PR trail. We go out and speak all around the country, all around the world really, at various events, sharing the experience we had with everybody.”

“Then I have to start working again, about October,” he laughed.

“I don’t know what that job is,” he continued, “ but to answer your question earlier ‘What do you do when you’re not flying,’ most of our time as an astronaut is not flying. We all work technical jobs in our office that in general support everybody else that’s launching. You could be working in the space walking kind of world or working in robotics… management level, running different teams, doing experiments. But in general they all support our colleagues that are launching into space.”

So how does one actually become an astronaut? Kimbrough explained that it requires hard work, a certain degree of luck and study in a STEM field is a must.

“For folks that want to be astronauts, obviously you’re education needs to be in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) for your undergraduate as well as a graduate degree. I would highly recommend that just to be competitive with all the other applicants, you need at least a Master’s degree in a STEM field. There’s plenty of routes to take and plenty of ways to do it. I was an aerospace engineer undergraduate and a systems engineer for my graduate degree. So in general it doesn’t matter what kind of engineering degree or math degree or science degree you get as long as you get one and then you do well at it.”

He explained the astronaut selection that just finished had 18,000 applicants and they will pick about 8 to 10 people out of that group. “If you have the basic requirements, you probably won’t be selected. You have to be a superstar in everything you do. You have to do well in all the jobs that you do because we’re going to talk to all your former bosses and see how you interact with a team and those kind of things.”

You’re personality may have a bit to do with it as well. “Bottom line is when we’re selecting people we want to know that you’re somebody, that in my case I could be in a very small area with for very long periods of time and survive and get along and not be annoyed the whole time,” he joked.

“Of course education is a huge thing as well as work experience. We have some really really smart people here. Just incredible people with experiences in life that are very unique. Those are things that we look for as well.”

Kimbrough explained that while he had wanted to be an astronaut since childhood, it wasn’t a goal that would break him if never achieved. His career before becoming an astronaut was quite notable.

“I was an army officer for most of my career and it’s an incredible career just being able to serve your country and for me it was a big deal in being able to do that for many years... Although I wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little kid, I never kind of made that the end all.”

He explained, “No matter who you are, you could be the best person in the world, the chances of you getting selected as an astronaut are pretty slim. And so I always had that in the back of my mind. I never planned on getting selected... Towards the end when I was applying in 2004, I knew I was a competitive candidate but still if it didn’t happen it wasn’t going to make or break my career or my life or anything like that. I would caution folks too that want to be astronauts that it’s a great goal to have but everybody can’t be astronauts. We need people working in Mission Control and in building our spacecraft as well. So if they’re interested in the science field and want to be part of the space program, we need thousands and thousands of people to do that.”

While Kimbrough would love to set foot on the moon, like the astronauts of his childhood, there is no doubt that NASA’s future direction is Mars, with the moon’s orbit providing a sort of gateway between earth and the red planet. NASA is planning to create a space station near the moon, termed a “deep space gateway” and they are in the process of developing the spacecraft to take them beyond it, Orion. The next Orion mission, Exploration Mission-1 will take place in 2019 and will be uncrewed.
Astronaut Shane Kimbrough snapped this photo from the International Space Station showing the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport towards the bottom right.  Cortez Boulevard crosses the top corner and the Suncoast Expressway runs diagonally through the middle of the photo.

“I just personally would like to do that (go to the moon) since that is what inspired me back when I was a little kid. Just watching the men walk on the moon, that was an amazing accomplishment for our country and for the space program. Of course it would be awesome for me to do that… but currently the plans are not to actually go land on the moon. We will do some fly around orbits of the moon as part of the Orion program and some other programs going on. But currently there are no plans to land on the moon, I’m not sure I’m going to get the opportunity even if I wanted to,” Kimbrough explained.

“The next big goal for us is Mars. That’s really really challenging and so maybe in the next 20 years or so hopefully we’ll get somebody to Mars.”

While Kimbrough was on the space station, he took many photos of various locations on earth. When asked if he happened to see Weeki Wachee Springs from space, Kimbrough replied, “You can’t tell when you’re flying over that it’s actually Weeki Wachee, but I kind of knew when we were coming up the west coast of Florida. I usually get the cameras out and start taking pictures of Tampa and going north from there. I actually got some pictures of Weeki Wachee by accident as well as Brooksville and a lot of Hernando County. You don’t really know it until you kind of put them on a computer and start looking and recognizing a few places. I was lucky enough to get some great shots of Hernando County.”