Q&A: Air Force general, astronaut Kevin Chilton was almost neither

Kevin P. Chilton remembers his parents shaking him awake in May 1961 and plopping him in front of the television to watch Alan Shepard become the first American in space.

So the optimal version of his story would continue with him instantly falling in love with the idea of space flight and hurrying down the path to get there. Instead, Chilton, today a retired four-star U.S. Air Force general, almost studied geography instead of engineering, almost joined a commercial airline instead of becoming a military test pilot and almost skipped applying for NASA altogether.

Miraculously, his career fell into place, and Chilton will visit Vanderbilt University on Oct. 24 to share his experiences. He’s meeting with Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos and other university leaders before delivering the lecture “Problem Solving and Team Work at 17,500 Miles an Hour” at 3:30 p.m. in Jacobs Believed in Me Auditorium, located inside Featheringill Hall.

Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics Sharon Weiss invited him to speak. They formerly served together on the Defense Science Study Group.

Gen. Kevin P. Chilton

Chilton’s storied career includes time as a test pilot, an astronaut, and as commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. He completed a 34-year Air Force career in 2011 as commander of U.S. Strategic Command and lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Your degrees are in engineering science and mechanical engineering. Were you planning on becoming an astronaut, or did you have any other goals in mind?

I went to the Air Force Academy because I was trying to find a way to learn how to fly airplanes. What I really wanted to do was become a commercial airline pilot. I grew up near the Los Angeles airport, my mother had been a stewardess in the 1940s, my father was an aeronautical engineer, and I had an uncle who was an airline pilot, and he seemed really happy. I found out that if you went to the Air Force Academy, they taught you for free, and free sounded good.

I stumbled into engineering accidentally. I almost declared geography, but I decided to wait one more semester before I declared, took my first engineering course and absolutely fell in love with it.

Did your engineering background help you in ways other than physically solving problems with aircraft?

It opened doors for me. Between my junior and senior years at the Air Force Academy, I was picked to go on a summer research program at Edwards Air Force Base in California. I was assigned to work on the X-24B lifting body program, the last manned rocket program coming out of the X series. The X-1 was Chuck Yeager.

It was a vehicle designed to show you could control and land without wings, which was useful for the space shuttle program — just being thought of at the time. I thought, here’s a career field where I could do engineering and fly, so I set that as a goal.

Engineering in general, whether or not you apply it in your career, makes you think about problems in a very disciplined manner. You understand what it means to make assumptions and challenge those assumptions.

Your bios just mention your time being “assigned to NASA,” but I imagine the emotion of landing a job as rare as astronaut is tough to capture.

Chilton in 2007, when he was head of U.S. Air Force Space Command. (Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

You’re not just assigned. You have to apply. NASA invites you to interview, and it’s about a week-long process. The interview is only about an hour, but there’s a lot of physical and psychological testing. There were 15 of us selected in the astronaut candidate class of 1987 from all branches of the military and civilians.

I actually didn’t apply on my first opportunity. Someone asked why, and I said, “I didn’t go to test pilot school to become an astronaut.” Fortunately for me, they put out another call a few years later. I kind of went out there testing the waters to see if this something I’d like to do at the same time they were testing me to see if I was the kind of person they would like to hire.

When I finished that week-long process, I was just so excited and hopeful that they would choose me.

Your speech is titled “Problem Solving and Team Work at 17,500 Miles an Hour.” What was the toughest problem you faced in your 704 hours in space?

The problem I’m going to talk about at Vanderbilt was the hardest one. On all my other missions, we trained for a year and half, and everything went as we planned. On this particular flight, nothing went right. We were faced with the potential of mission failure. We had to start from scratch.

It was the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The mission assignment was to construct a truss in the cargo bay – we were still experimenting with how we might build the Space Station – and the other was to rendezvous with a satellite and attach a rocket motor to it so it could be boosted to its proper orbit. It was in the later assignment that we had the most difficulties.

That’s what I’m going to talk about. How we solved that problem and how it was a great team effort to do it. Our lives weren’t in danger like in Apollo 13, but it would have been a waste of all that training and expense if we’d brought the rocket motor back and the satellite burned up on re-entry and was lost.

Wikipedia says you’re an accomplished guitarist. Do you think you’ll get that Stratocaster out while you’re in Music City?

Wikipedia is wrong. After I got to NASA, the rhythm guitarist (in an all-astronaut band named Max Q) left, and in a Monday-morning meeting, someone said, “Does anybody in here play guitar?” And I had been plunking around on the guitar since college with no formal training. So I said, “I’ve got a guitar.” And they said, “You’re in the band.”

It was so much fun. It was so different from all the other things we did. We weren’t great, but we were a dance band with a repertoire of about 50 songs that we played at weddings and other places around town.

You’ll never catch me with my guitar playing solo in front of a crowd.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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