Oct. 18, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word –
Don’t be surprised to see a Georgia Tech flag while looking at a transmission or pictures posted online by the crew on the International Space Station’s latest mission.
The GT will be up there, courtesy of Col. Robert “Shane” Kimbrough, one of three crew members on the six-month Expedition 49-50 mission. The mission begins with liftoff on early Wednesday morning.
“The folks at Tech were very gracious and let me have one of the flags off of the Ramblin’ Wreck. I’m going to take that up there. That’ll be pretty cool,” said Kimbrough, a 49-year-old native of Killeen, Texas, and a 1998 recipient of a Master’s degree in operations research from Georgia Tech.
“We’ll do some video events and take some pictures with it and send it back to the folks. We [will] try to squeeze it in somewhere.” (The crew’s photo log can be followed on Flickr).
Like many youngsters, Kimbrough, who graduated from The Lovett School in Atlanta, then earned a B.S. in aerospace engineering from West Point, grew up captivated by space travel, having seen several lift-offs at Cape Canavaral, where his grandparents lived.
His aviation career took flight after graduating from West Point. He served in a variety of capacities for the Army, including going through its aviation school. He earn the designation of Army Aviator, serving with the 24th Infantry in Operation Desert Storm as an attack helicopter platoon leader, aviation liaison officer and attack helicopter battalion operations officer. Back in the States, he commanded an Apache helicopter company at Fort Bragg, North Caroiina.
After earning a master’s degree at Georgia Tech, he went back to West Point, serving in U.S. Military Academy’s department of mathematical sciences. In 2004, he got a call from NASA and was accepted into its training program.
“Every assignment I had in the Army was incredible. I got to work with just amazing people every step along the way,” he said. “I got a call from NASA to come down to work for a little while. Not be an astronaut but just come down and give it a shot, maybe apply the next time. I got lucky enough to get selected in 2004.”
In February 2006, he completed astronaut candidate training and, in made his first space mission 2008, , totaling 15 days, 20 hours, 29 minutes and 37 seconds in orbit — 12 hours and 52 minutes of which came in two spacewalks. In November 2008, he was part of STS-126, NASA’s 27th shuttle/station assembly mission, in which he helped expand the living quarters and delivered a new bathroom, kitchen, two bedrooms, an exercise machine and a water recycling system to the station.
On Expedition 49-50, which was supposed to take off on Sept. 23 but was delayed due to technical issues on the Russian-made MS-02, Kimbrough, along with Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko, will re-supply the station. They take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday at 4:05 a.m. EDT on Wednesday (2:05 p.m. local time). The launch will be shown live on NASA TV and at NASA’s official website.
After making a two-day test flight of the new Soyuz, Kimbrough and his Russian counterparts will dock at the International Space Station, where they’ll join Russian commander Anatoly Ivanshin, America’s Kate Rubins and Japan’s Takuya Onishi.
“There’s a big Japanese re-supply vehicle that’s coming up after we arrive,” Kimbrough said. “We’ll go and grab it with the Canadian robotic arm, then we’ll attach that vehicle to the space station and have a bunch of re-supplies and equipment in there. I’ll be part of that operation. A big part of that vehicle [has] new batteries for the outside of the space station. We’ll go install all those batteries during spacewalks that we’ll conduct. Once that’s done, then it’s really all about science and research. [We’ll] try to get as much science and research done for all the scientists around the world that have submitted their proposals and their ‘payloads,’ [as] we call it.”
Unlike his previous trips, this one requires a much greater time commitment — six months, rather than a usual two-week stint. The crew will return home in February 2017.
Getting ready required nearly two-and-a-half years of training, which included travels to Russia, Japan and Germany, to learn about the MS-02, as well as Japanese and European modules, in which they’ll also spend time.
“It’s much longer and a different vehicle, so the training and everything has been completely different,” he said. “We really have to be a little more of an expert in all the systems on the space station. When we were there on the space shuttle, we were kind of just visitors there. We just had to know the systems on the space shuttle. Now we have to know all the systems on the Soyuz, the Russian spacecraft that gets us there and gets us home, as well as all the systems on the space station itself. I’m real excited about what we’re going to get to do up there.”
To that end and to enable him to fly on Soyuz and communicate with flightmates Ryzhikov and Borisenko, and commander Ivanshin, Kimbrough has become functional in Russian (he’s also learned enough Japanese to communicate with Onish). The communication barrier is, of course, an obstacle, but one they can at least get around.
“We’re flying on Russian vehicles,” Kimbrough said, admitting that both he and his Russian counterparts worked with translators during training to get comfortable with the language. “So when you get into that vehicle, everything is in Russian, all your checklists are in Russian, all the commands given by the commander are in Russian. You have to be able to operate in that environment. So we all speak at least the technical side of Russian pretty darn well. Colloquially, a lot of us speak it okay. Some speak better than others of course. The Russians, most of them speak in English. Again, some are better than others. We’re pretty compatible. So on the space station, the official language is English, but it really depends on where you are. If you forget some words you just help each other out.
“We certainly have gotten better over the years,” he continued. “It was very awkward early on just because none of our language skills are what they are today. It’s a little tougher when you’re starting out as a team and as a crew. You build your strengths and get rid of some of the weaknesses along the way. So it’s nice.”
While the crew is there on business, there is some time to unwind. They’ll have movies and TV shows, a phone to call home and a once-a-week video conference. Of course, there’s also WiFi.
“It’s okay but it’s not as good as probably you would think,” he said, with a laugh. “It just got set up a few years ago but it’s working pretty well. We have issues just like you do at your home and we have to troubleshoot those. We don’t have anybody to come fix it for us so we have to do it on our own and get it back running as soon as we can.”
One thing Kimbrough and the crew do have that people on Earth do not is the ability to experience the sight of the Earth from space when they’ll venture out in to space to work.
“It’s pretty crazy when you go outside, when you open up the hatch and you’re outside for the first time and you see the incredible Earth underneath you going very quickly,” he said. “You get five or 10 minutes or so when you first go out to just hang there and try to grasp what’s going on. You have a few minutes to really enjoy the view then we just got to work for six or seven hours. Then you come back in and you kind of think about it, kind of go through the sensations that you felt when you were out there and realize what you did. But while you’re out there, we’re working pretty darned hard and not really thinking about either the cool factor or how dangerous it is when we’re out there.”
Moving inside the station is easier with a gravity-free environment.
“There’s no up or down. So you can be upside down and it’s not weird or strange,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just kind of normal. You’ll see people just come floating through in completely different orientations and it’s really just kind of how you’re feeling or what you want to try that day. You can sleep upside down or right side up or sideways and it’s all the same because there’s no blood rushing to your head like we would have here on Earth due to gravity.”
So while they literally might not know down from up, they can quickly find their way via signs and labels throughout the space station.
Of course, that lack of gravity also can lead to the occasional levity.
“We do have a lot of fun and there will be some practical jokes while we’re there,” Kimbrough said, with a laugh. “The only one I can think of is we put someone that’s pretty short in the middle of the Japanese module, which is the biggest module that’s up there. You can actually put somebody that’s less than 5-8 or so, in the middle of a module and let him go and they’re kind of stuck there because they can’t get to a wall or a ceiling or the floor just because they don’t have the reach to do that. So you kind of leave them there for a few minutes then help them out. That’s one thing that I’ve seen done before.”
Kimbrough admits that these trips are taxing mentally and physically — more the former than the latter — but that they’re worth it. While there’s no required recovery period between flights, the waiting list itself takes care of that.
“We have so many astronauts that are waiting in line to fly that there’s no way anybody’s going to come back and go [again] very quickly,” he said. “That hasn’t always been the case but it certainly is now. We’re all kind of waiting in line and we’re only launching four missions a year with the Russian,s so we’re launching four or five Americans a year. With 40 astronauts right now, you can see how the line is pretty long waiting to go fly in space.”
That makes every day of every mission extra special. Kimbrough realizes that and still appreciates how he’s living his boyhood dream.
“I certainly had that feeling the first time I went up and I’ll probably have it every day when I go back because it’s just incredible,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling for one. But then just to think, ‘This is what I dreamt about forever and it’s happening in real life,’ it’s pretty neat.”
It’s also pretty neat that he will take a treasured part of Georgia Tech tradition with him to the International Space Station — a “Give ‘Em Hell Tech” flag from the Ramblin’ Wreck. The choice of that flag was simple — the “To Hell With Georgia” flag that also adorns the Wreck could be easily misunderstood and cause an international incident, given that Georgia is also the name of a Eurasian country that borders Russia.
Kimbrough hopes to share photos and videos of the flag with the Georgia Tech community while he is in space and Georgia Tech plans to honor him during an athletic event after his return to Earth.