On the evening of 11 May 1992, Kevin Chilton and Rick Hieb stayed up late on the flight deck of Shuttle Endeavour, brainstorming a thorny problem which threatened to ruin their mission. Four days earlier, they had launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on STS-49, which not only marked the maiden voyage of Endeavour—the orbiter built to replace the lost Challenger—but was also tasked with retrieving the stranded Intelsat 603 communications satellite, fitting a new rocket motor, and boosting it into its correct geostationary orbit. Two spacewalks by Hieb and Pierre Thuot had failed to affix a specially designed “capture bar” onto the satellite, in order to stabilize it for grappling by Endeavour’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, throwing STS-49 into jeopardy. As Chilton and Hieb discussed the options, they came upon the kernel of an idea which not only achieved success, but also made history.
Kevin Patrick Chilton—who turns 60 today (Monday, 3 November)—holds the record for having achieved the highest rank of any military astronaut. Although Tom Stafford and Susan Helms achieved three stars in their careers, Chilton is alone in having risen to become a four-star Air Force general by the time he retired from active service in February 2011. He held a number of directorial posts at the Pentagon and commanded the Air Force Space Command and the U.S. Strategic Command. He was born in Los Angeles, Calif., and entered the Air Force Academy after high school to study engineering sciences. Upon receipt of his degree in 1976, Chilton pursued a master’s credential in mechanical engineering, on a Guggenheim Fellowship, from Columbia University in 1977.
He then entered pilot training, earning his wings at Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Ariz., and qualifying in the RF-4C, the reconnaissance variant of the Phantom II jet. Chilton initially deployed to Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, before converting to the F-15 Eagle in 1981 and working his way through squadron officer school at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. His performance during this time won Chilton the Secretary of the Air Force Leadership Award as the school’s top graduate. The next few years saw posts as a weapons officer, instructor pilot, and flight commander, before selection to enter test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in 1984. Chilton graduated from the prestigious school as first in his class, and in August 1987 he was chosen by NASA as one of seven shuttle pilot candidates.
By this stage in his military career, age 32, Chilton already held the rank of Major, and by the time of his assignment as pilot of STS-49 in December 1990 he had reached Lieutenant-Colonel. In being named to the crew of the maiden voyage of Endeavour, he was aboard one of the most ambitious shuttle flights of the decade: a mission to retrieve and reboost Intelsat 603—which had been left in an improper orbit, following a launch malfunction in March 1990—and support as many as three EVAs by four different astronauts. Chilton entered space for the first time on 7 May 1992, but it was his conversation with Hieb a few days later which drew the rest of the STS-49 crew from their slumbers to join the discussion on Endeavour’s flight deck.
The main concern was where to manually grab Intelsat 603. The “top” of the satellite, which carried its delicate antennas, was not ideal, and it was STS-49 mission specialist Bruce Melnick who suggested a unique EVA, featuring not two spacewalkers, but three. No EVA in history had ever involved more than two people, partly due to safety concerns and also due to the sheer impracticality of getting three bulky space suits into the shuttle’s tiny airlock. Years later, Commander Dan Brandenstein remembered that it was Chilton who sketched out the three-person EVA plan and held it in front of the television camera for Mission Control to see how it could work.
“The big choke point,” Brandenstein said, “was can you put three people in the airlock to get them outside?” In the Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, fellow astronauts Story Musgrave, Jim Voss, and Michael “Rich” Clifford donned suits and demonstrated the techniques and geometries involved in accomplishing the feat. It was doable. On the evening of 12 May, Capcom Charles “Sam” Gemar radioed Mission Control’s approval to the crew. It proved tricky, but spectacularly successful, and a few days later Intelsat 603 was delivered perfectly into geostationary orbit by its newly fitted booster.
Returning to Earth after nine days, Chilton quickly re-entered the training cycle, and in March 1993 he was assigned as pilot of STS-59, the first Space Radar Laboratory (SRL-1) mission, which involved the mapping of Earth’s surface with powerful synthetic aperture radar. Originally targeted to fly on 7 April 1994, Chilton contracted a virus in the days before launch and had to be placed under observation in the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) crew quarters. “It was a race,” reflected STS-59 mission specialist Tom Jones in his memoir, Skywalking, “between Chili’s recuperative powers and the ticking countdown clock.” Fortunately, Chilton recovered in time and after several technical delays, STS-59 roared into orbit on 9 April. The flight was extended due to poor weather at the landing site and landed after 11 days in orbit.
In addition to flying, Chilton was an accomplished guitarist and had played for many years with the all-astronaut rock band, “Max Q.” He was also a Eucharistic minister, and the second Sunday after Easter in 1994 happened to fall whilst STS-59 was in orbit. To observe the occasion, Chilton joined his Catholic crewmates Sid Gutierrez and Tom Jones on Endeavour’s flight deck for a short service of Communion.
Following his second mission as pilot, the general rule of thumb was that an astronaut would rotate into the commander’s seat for his next flight. In November 1994, Chilton was named to command STS-76—the “Spirit of ’76,” he called it—which would embark on the third shuttle docking with Russia’s Mir space station in March 1996. Unlike the two previous shuttle-Mir dockings in June and November 1995, STS-76 pushed the envelope as the first to deliver a U.S. long-duration crew member and perform a shuttle-based EVA whilst docked at an Earth-circling space station. The burden of command also placed upon Chilton’s shoulders the responsibility of executing a perfect rendezvous and docking with Mir. From the perspective of his STS-76 crewmate, Rich Clifford, the approach was so smooth that he hardly felt the physical docking. In fact, Chilton was so absorbed in the proximity operations that when Clifford tapped him on the shoulder to offer congratulations, his commander almost jumped out of his skin with surprise. “You can even see it on the video,” Clifford recalled later. “He was just so focused on the docking.”
When Chilton guided Atlantis to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 31 March 1996, after nine days, he completed a three-mission astronaut career which had seen him spend a cumulative 29 days in orbit. He later served as Deputy Program Manager for the International Space Station (ISS) and left NASA in August 1998 to return to active Air Force duty as Deputy Director of Operations at Headquarters Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. During this period, he received his first star, promoted from Colonel to Brigadier-General. He progressively rose through positions of increasing seniority, serving on the Air Staff, the Joint Staff, and commanding the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebr. Retiring from the Air Force in February 2011 as a four-star General—after more than three decades of military service—Chilton currently serves on the board of directors for Orbital Sciences Corp.