The International Space Station is a "great model for society," said NASA astronaut and retired Army Col. Robert S. "Shane" Kimbrough, who returned to Earth on April 10 after 173 days in space.
It's a study of how six Russian, American, French and Japanese crew members can work together in confined spaces to do some really incredible science and research that will benefit all of society, said Kimbrough, who was the Expedition 50 commander on the International Space Station.
The experience on the ISS demonstrates that none of the countries could have done it alone, Kimbrough said. “It takes all the international partners working together to make that space station program happen," he added.
"As space station commander, you've got to integrate all those different types of people, personalities and culture to make an effective team," he said, adding that integrating the team wasn't much of a challenge because he had a great crew. “I was just fortunate enough to be up there with the people I was," he said.
The crew communicated well despite the variety of native languages, the astronaut said. He and another American, along with a Japanese and French astronaut, spoke to the three cosmonauts in Russian, and in turn, the Russians spoke English to them.
"We were constantly working on the language and always learning more vocabulary and different terms, and even slang," he said. The challenging he said, part was translating the technical jargon. Overall, he said, it was great working with the crew amid the differences in language, culture and cuisine, Kimbrough said. "It's always interesting learning different cultures," he added.
Besides sharing languages, the crew also shared food, Kimbrough said. The Russians would partake of the American, French and Japanese food, and they, in turn, would be offered Russian meals, particularly on weekends.
"They seemed to enjoy our food, and we enjoyed theirs," he said.
After 173 days in space, living in a confined area, it might seem easy to get on each other's nerves after a while. Not so, Kimbrough said.
"We had a lot of training before the mission in learning ways and techniques on how to not annoy people," he said. "When they pick astronauts, one of the criteria is, 'Are you going to annoy somebody if you are in a small area for a long time? Because if so, we don't want you here doing this job. You can do something else.'"
Space Travel is Fun
Kimbrough said the crew did a lot of important scientific experiments in biology and the physical sciences. Some of the biology experiments could lead to advances in medical treatment, he noted.
But besides all the work, the crew had a lot of fun, too. "Every day is fun," he said. "Everything is floating around, and you're floating around instead of walking. Eating is especially fun. You can eat upside down, right-side up, toss an M&M to your buddy across the room or send him a drink. We played around a lot with our food. We tell our kids at home not to do that, but we do it in space."
Another type of fun, he said, was "looking out the window at our beautiful planet Earth. That was really special."
Valued Army Experience
Kimbrough credits the Army with giving him many opportunities for operational experience and leadership training, beginning at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and all of the follow-on leadership courses throughout his career.
NASA is looking for astronauts with that type of experience, along with the education. Kimbrough graduated from West Point in 1989 with a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering, and he later graduated from Georgia Tech in 1998 with a Master of Science degree in operations research. His operational experience includes piloting an Apache helicopter during the Gulf War.
Besides education and leadership experience, NASA is looking for someone who has been exposed to unique and austere environments, something "we as soldiers experience on deployments," Kimbrough said. NASA also is interested in someone who can thrive on a team and deal with stress, he added.
"We're good at memorizing responses in critical situations," he said. "My brain was set in that mode from all of the Army training. So we're always preparing for worst-case situations and hoping we never have to go there, but if something bad would happen, we're ready to go and respond in those situations."
Is a manned mission to Mars in the cards for the future? "I absolutely think having a manned mission to Mars and other places is where we need to go. … That is the next frontier for humanity," Kimbrough said.
In a couple of decades, a human will land on Mars, he predicted, "but I'll certainly be too old to do that when the time comes around."
The school children he talks to today will be the generation that gets to Mars, he said. "Hopefully, we can inspire them to go down that road," he added.
Soldier for Life
It's an honor to be a soldier for life, Kimbrough said, noting that the Army instilled in him "this incredible sense of service ever since going to West Point." Working for NASA as a civil servant also is a wonderful experience, he said.
No matter where he goes or who he meets, Kimbrough said, he feels that he's representing the Army, and "that's a great feeling."
Kimbrough added that he couldn't have ever been successful in the Army or NASA without the support of his friends and family, particularly during long deployments or in space on this mission and a previous one in 2008 aboard the space shuttle Endeavour to the ISS.