Special to the Journal
Atlanta, Ga -If you’re fortunate enough to attend Georgia Tech’s Kickoff Luncheon Friday at the Cobb Galleria, you’ll hear Shane Kimbrough and that will make you more fortunate still. The keynote speaker graduated from Tech and became an astronaut, and he’s got stories.
He once flew so high directly over Bobby Dodd Stadium, for example, that even though he and his buddies were going 17,500 mph you could look up as the Yellow Jackets played Miami on Nov. 20, 2008, and see a glimmer in the high, night sky.
That was Kimbrough, who earned a master’s degree from Tech. Actually, it was the light of the sun wrapping around Earth and reflecting off his temporary home – the conjoined space shuttle and space station.
Perhaps you remember.
“ESPN somehow knew it and they got us on camera, and put it on the Jumbotron in the stadium,” Kimbrough said. “We had no idea what was going on. What was crazy is we figured out later that I was actually space-walking at the time.”
So Kimbrough – who was among four Tech-connected astronauts honored last fall at the Georgia game — was not sitting in Major Tom’s tin can, but floating outside of it. Can you imagine?
He did as a lad, dreaming dual dreams while growing up in Smyrna and then graduating from the Lovett School in 1985. He wanted to be a baseball player or an astronaut.
Click here for Kimbrough’s full bio.
This certainly didn’t hurt the ol’ imagination: “My grandparents lived in Florida, practically, across the street from the launch center [in Cape Canaveral],” he said. “My grandfather would take me see out to see anything that was launching, whether it was a satellite or an Apollo rocket.”
There came a time when he thought the dream might die.
Although Kimbrough graduated in ’89 with a degree in aerospace engineering from the USMA at West Point (where he was an all-conference pitcher), he went directly into Army Aviation School, became a helicopter pilot and soon deployed in the Middle East in Operation Desert Storm.
“I figured by then there was no way I could do that,” he said of space flight.
A military career was well under way, the astronaut thing was a distant memory, and then a funny thing happened. A work trip re-ignited Kimbrough’s fuse.
“I’d been in the Army a few years when I ran into a guy at the Army Aviation Convention, which was in Atlanta that time, in a blue flight suit and I said, ‘What’s your deal?’” he recalled. “He said he was an Army astronaut. I said, ‘Wait. We can do that?’ ”
This was the early 1990s, and Kimbrough was entrenched in his Army career. He was not going to give up on the idea, however, of going into space. His resume was impressive enough to earn consideration for the NASA’s astronaut program, yet a master’s degree would help even more.
With assistance from military officials, he finally found appropriate graduate school placement all while continuing to serve active duty in the Army. “They said, ‘We finally found you a spot, but the only place we have is Georgia Tech,” Kimbrough explained. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? That would have been my first choice!’”
Not even a master of science degree in operations research from Tech, earned in ’98, guaranteed entry to the astronaut program. The application process was predictably arduous, and not until 2004 was he accepted.
Fourteen astronauts have had Georgia Tech connections, and Kimbrough, 45, is not finished trying to go into space. He lives in Houston now, where he is married with three children, and still on active duty with the Army.
He is also the Robotics Branch Chief for the Astronaut Office. “I’m doing things to prepare others to go to space. We have technical jobs . . . I train people to use the robotic arm on the space station,” he said. “I hope to get assigned to a mission in a few months. It would still be about three years from that time . . . to when you’d fly.”
With the shuttle program shuttered, another space assignment would almost certainly require Kimbrough to spend a great deal of time training in Russia. That is the most likely spot for a launch that would take him to the International Space Station.
Until then, he has serious memories to lean upon and relate in a most unique way with some words by the late T.S. Eliot.
“The launch experience is something no simulator can match,” he said. “You’re going from zero to 17,500 mph in about eight minutes. I was laughing, smiling like a little kid. It was just the greatest ride of my life. I wasn’t nervous at all. I felt like I was exactly where I should be.
“Looking back at our planet was absolutely phenomenal. That perspective just affirmed the faith I had beforehand, and gave me a bit of a God’s-eye view. It’s so fragile. You can see the thin layer of atmosphere, and you know that’s all that protects us on our planet. It made me realize we’ve got to take care of this place; conserve, preserve our planet.
“And going out the hatch for the first time, that was . . . ridiculous. I was looking right at the Earth when I came out. Being outside versus inside . . . the vibrant colors of the planet really struck me. I’m going 17,500 mph, although you don’t feel the effect. Five miles per second is another way to think about it.”
Kimbrough can fly just about anything now, and does. As he flew high over Bobby Dodd nearly four years ago, the Yellow Jackets thumped the Hurricanes 41-23.
“It was a great win,” he said, “and the next week they put it on Georgia, so that was a very good week.”
Kimbrough’s mission on Endeavour ran from Nov. 14-30, 2008. The Shuttle carried quite a payload as the mission focused on expanding the living quarters of the Space Station with the delivery of a new bathroom, kitchenette, two bedrooms, an exercise machine and a water recycling system.
He went on two spacewalks for a total of 12 hours, 52 minutes. Before returning to Earth, he completed 250 orbits and covered over six million miles.
Kimbrough was an outstanding baseball player, and said he still speaks somewhat regularly with his high school athletic coaches.
His perspective reminds of a portion of Eliot’s poem, the Little Gidding:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”