April 3, 2015 – The highest ranking U.S. military astronaut shared lessons from his first trip to space with USAF Academy Prep School students on March 30.
Retired Gen. Kevin Chilton, a distinguished Academy graduate and former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, spent 11 years of his military career as an astronaut. He said leadership and problem solving allowed him and his crew members to complete mission 49 of the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992.
Chilton served as a pilot until he applied to work for NASA. His first space opportunity came when he was selected as one of seven astronauts to board Endeavour for its maiden flight.
“It was the most exciting time of my life,” he said.
The crew was tasked to reroute a communication satellite stuck in a 300-mile orbit around the Earth. They needed to stop the satellite from spinning off course and attach a new motor to boost it to its correct orbit.
“We trained for the mission for a year and a half,” Chilton said. “We were highly confident the mission was going to work because everything we practiced indicated we would be successful.”
On launch day, Chilton prepared for the ride of his life. Endeavour lifted off May 7, 1992, just before sunset, and soared into darkness.
“It’s a thrilling eight and a half minutes,” Chilton said. “You go from zero to 17,500 mph. You’re dumbfounded because there is no simulation on the ground that can prepare you for it.”
The crew’s first two attempts to complete the mission failed.
“There was some doubt whether ground control could ever get the satellite back under control,” Chilton said. “We had planned to accomplish the task during the first attempt. We had trained over a year for the mission and with the whole world watching, failed.”
Exhausted and frustrated, some crew members rested while Chilton and another astronaut analyzed the problem on the flight deck.
“We kept thinking, ‘What can we do differently?'” Chilton said. “I was looking out the back window, letting my mind wander, when believe it or not, a class I’d had at the Academy and then repeated at Squadron Officer School came to mind. It was called, Problem Solving 101.”
The first step to problem solving is getting everyone on your team to agree what the problem is, Chilton said.
“We came to the conclusion that when one of the astronauts was pushing the bar against the satellite, it would slip away,” he said. “The satellite wasn’t getting around the edge of the bar. We moved to the next step, to assess all the tools and talents on your team to solve the problem. That’s when we decided we would have three people spacewalk, instead of two. Two astronauts would hold the satellite while the third would move underneath and put the bar on it.”
Fuel was running low and it was their last shot, Chilton said.
“At one point the computers stopped working and it looked like the mission was over,” he said. “The satellite was delicate and important not to bend. It’s amazing what risks people will take when failure is the only other option. We fired the (motor) and it worked.”
When the crew attempted to launch, however, their technique didn’t work, Chilton said.
“The launch mechanism is very reliable and had never failed in the history of NASA,” he said. “We were stuck — mission failure. It wasn’t until a 22-year-old college graduate in the back room of mission control radioed for us to use a different command. It didn’t seem promising, but we trusted him to be a professional and know his stuff. We used the command and it worked.”
Chilton returned to the Air Force following his days at NASA before retiring in 2011.
“I was very fortunate to be picked as an astronaut and even more fortunate 11 years later when I was able to return to the Air Force,” he said. “During my time at the Academy and pilot training, all I wanted to do was get out of the Air Force after five years. Something happened along the way and I fell in love with Air Force family and mission.”
Chilton is one of 39 astronauts that have graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy since April 1, 1954.