“I was able to see a lot of [rocket] launches as a small kid,” says NASA astronaut and Lovett class of 1985 alum Shane Kimbrough, “because my grandparents lived right across from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and I went to visit them a lot. So I got to be a part of the space program my whole life.”
Mr. Kimbrough’s first role in space exploration was being part of the audience to NASA’s early endeavors. Now, we are the audience members of NASA’s new collaboration with SpaceX and its upcoming mission, SpaceX Crew-2, in which Mr. Kimbrough will be returning to space for the third time.
“A lot of things happened for me to be in this spot,” Mr. Kimbrough tells me when we meet over Zoom one morning. He explains that he didn’t expect to be chosen for the early 2021 mission. Up until a couple of months ago, he had figured that his mission to the International Space Station, back in 2017, would be his last time in space. However, this summer, when SpaceX was looking for an experienced astronaut to fill its Crew-2 team, he fit the qualifications and was able to fill the role.
Following his 2017 mission, Mr. Kimbrough has continued his work with NASA from the ground. Over the last decade, he has also been working with the SpaceX Team, even interacting at times with Elon Musk himself, to make private space travel through SpaceX a possibility. But, he admits, “Never did I really think I would be one of the ones flying on it.”
Mr. Kimbrough was there in May of this year when the first two NASA astronauts boarded the SpaceX Dragon capsule towards the International Space Station. In August, he was on the boat that retrieved the astronauts following their successful landing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, Mr. Kimbrough will be on the spacecraft himself, and he says the entire crew is excited to be among the first to fly on the Dragon. He explains this new SpaceX vehicle could be equated to an Uber or a rental car. He is still a NASA astronaut, but this privately-owned spaceship will be his mode of transportation for this mission.
Even though he has flown two missions, this will only be the first time Mr. Kimbrough has flown in an American-based spaceship. One of his prior missions took place in a Russian-based spacecraft, which presented its own obstacles, including proficiency in the Russian language.
“Russian is, obviously, a different language that’s very challenging,” he says, “but then the technical Russian language is a whole nother world.”
Fortunately, although he will be returning to Russia soon as part of his training, his upcoming mission will not require him to know the Russian equivalent of NASA lingo. However, as in the past, his new mission will involve astronauts from space programs across the world.
“One of the most incredible parts [of my job],” he says, “is getting to work with so many different countries and people from so many different cultures.”
Currently, he is working with his team to prepare for their new mission. Along with refamiliarizing themselves with the International Space Station, they have also been training with the new equipment aboard the SpaceX Dragon.
One unexpected variable has been COVID-19, which has impacted this preparation in interesting ways. For one, they no longer use commercial flights as transportation between their different training locations. Instead, they have been flying on a private plane, a new luxury that Mr. Kimbrough admits he enjoys. However, the pandemic has also greatly limited their ability to interact with different members of the greater SpaceX team.
Normally, they would be able to walk around the entire SpaceX facility and meet with the people who are researching and building in preparation for their mission. Unfortunately, right now, the astronauts have had to largely stay confined to their main training room in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19. “Which is a bummer,” Mr. Kimbrough says, “because it’s always neat to talk to the engineers and the scientists and get to know them a little bit.”
Still, Mr. Kimbrough and the rest of his crew are looking forward to their mission. They are also excited about the future of space travel as a whole.
“I think the next part,” Mr. Kimbrough says, “is to not just go to the moon and come home like we did back in the early 70s, but to go there and maintain a presence there and have a sustainable presence there.”
While he doesn’t yet know what this sustainable presence on the moon will look like, he imagines that “It’s some of the stuff you see in movies that will really come to life at some level.”
Whatever it turns out to be, the hope is that by spending more time on the moon, we will learn the technologies and build the tools that will lead us to exploration of the red planet.
“Eventually,” Mr. Kimbrough says “the goal is to get to Mars, to put a human on Mars and to put many humans on Mars.”
But when I asked if he plans to be one of those humans to travel to the moon or to Mars, he tells me that he thinks his upcoming mission to the International Space Station will be his final time traveling in a spacecraft. Still, this doesn’t mean that he won’t be involved in making those feats possible.
Just like he was part of the space program when he was a young kid watching NASA rocket launches on his visits to his grandparent’s house, he will continue to be a part of the space program even after he is no longer one of the ones traveling in space. His new role will be in supporting the next generation of space travelers.
“We’re all part of a great team here,” he says, “not just the astronauts, but all the engineers and scientists at NASA, part of a great team that makes really awesome things happen.”