It was November 2008, during the 10th anniversary of the International Space Station (ISS). Robert Shane Kimbrough, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1989 graduate and National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronaut, went on his first space flight to the ISS. Class of 2022 Cadet Zachary Kimbrough was 8 years old at the time and could not fathom the magnitude of his father’s interstellar journey.
During this period, Robert was partnered with NASA astronaut, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, and assigned on the STS-126 space shuttle as a mission specialist.
During the mission, he completed two extravehicular activities (EVA), which takes place after going beyond the threshold of earth’s atmosphere and the astronaut is required to venture outside a spacecraft and conduct a spacewalk.
Robert, having accomplished his ultimate goal of venturing out to space, spent a total of two weeks on the assignment.
It’s been over 12 years since that momentous day and now Robert was called to action once again to don a custom-made space suit and spend six months conducting world class scientific research within a laboratory aboard the ISS. This time, at 21 years old, Zachary was paying acute attention to every aspect of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 launch preparations.
“I thought he was just going on vacation, you know. I was 8 years old. I didn’t really get it. However, eight years later when I was 16, a junior in high school, that’s when it really hit me hard ,” Zachary said. “I actually knew about the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle explosions. I knew that this was real, that what he was doing was life threatening, and this time, he was launching out of Kazakhstan, with the (Russian Aviation and Space Agency) so I was definitely more nervous just in general, on his second launch.”
To his surprise and utter fulfillment, Zachary was granted the opportunity to spend a week with Robert and watched him take command of the SpaceX Crew2 mission as he prepared to launch into space for the third time from the NASA Kennedy Space Center on April 23.
Zachary had arrived on Monday night and on Tuesday morning the two met up at a SpaceX facility about 100 yards away from the Falcon 9 rocket that would carry Crew 2 into space.
“I didn't even think we were going to get that close to the rocket, but we met inside the facility and that was where I saw my dad for the first time since winter break,” Zachary said. “I was able to catch up with him, although, we had to maintain distance because he was on quarantine. Even without a pandemic, NASA still quarantines astronauts before they launch to space.”
Prior to the launch, Robert had invited around 50 of his closest friends and family members to enjoy a heartfelt reunion leading up to the commencement of his interstellar journey, Zachary added.
“That whole group walked in and then we caught up with them. My dad was able to talk to the entire group for about 10 to 15 minutes before he continued with prepping for launch,” Zachary said. “It was a very nice experience. Friends and family were able to ask a bunch of questions pertaining to my dad’s mission. It was just awesome catching up with tons of family I haven’t seen in a very long time.”
During his visitation, a SpaceX crew member gave Zachary a tour up the steel frame service structure that is attached to the rocket launch pad. He along with friends and family were able to venture through the walkway Leading to SpaceX Crew Dragon Spacecraft.
“It was incredible! I didn’t even think any of that would happen during my visit, but that was truly one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever done in my life,” Zachary said. “Seeing that massive tower was just incredible. It was amazing witnessing that incredible feat of engineering.”
And so, the day had arrived. Robert boarded the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft with fellow NASA astronaut Meghan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide as the second crew rotation mission to the ISS.
The astronauts strapped in tight to their seats and waited as mission control applied precautions were completed prior to lift off. The faint glow of the morning sun sat on the horizon gradually lighting the pre-dawn night sky. Large white trails of condensation curled off of the metallic back of the Falcon 9 rocket as the moment of truth came, in the words, “Dragon, SpaceX, go for launch!”
Crew 2 was ready. Zachary watched with anxious anticipation. Mission control sounded off on the 10-count ending in ‘three, two, one, mission and lift off!’
The spacecraft had launched into the skies reaching speeds of up to 10,000 miles per hour and climbing. The feeling was surreal and awe-inspiring as Zachary watched the radiant glow of the rocket growing smaller and smaller becoming a bead of light in the dark expanse of the cosmos.
“We’re part of a team that has, literally, thousands of people that have trained SpaceX Crew 2. There are mission control centers all around the world from Russia and the rest of Europe to Japan and in the US and we’ve gone to all those places to train for this mission,” Robert said. “Also, there are hundreds of scientists, researchers and engineers who helped build our spacecraft. Many of these people we never see face-to-face, but we’re putting our faith in them that they've built the spacecraft correctly and that it will help us navigate space and get us home safely.”
With his son attending West Point and hoping to branch Aviation, Robert hopes that traversing the dark reaches of space and assisting humankind through scientific research provides Zachary a fitting reference on how to lead by example when he commissions as a second lieutenant, he added.
“Being a selfless leader who puts others first may sound simple, but for some people it’s not easy to implement a lot of time, so I’ve been very fortunate to have mentors along the way my entire career who really ingrain that selflessness into me and you learn some of that at West Point, but you have to get out in the real army to put into practice,” Robert said. “I was super fortunate to have leaders take me under their wing to teach me the way to do things correctly and I just hope Zach pays attention to what I’m doing, as he lives his own life, because I’ve worked toward being family man and I put my kids before anything and a lot of people ask me what my greatest accomplishment is all the time and I say raising three incredible children with my wife is my greatest accomplishment. I’m super proud of our children and I know they're going to be great things down the road.”