People

Augusta native considers herself an ‘unlikely astronaut’

 A tough Richmond County schoolteacher propelled Susan Still Kilrain’s dream to reach the stars.

”She taught math in a way that I understood it,” said Kilrain, whose experiences in Sarah Brown’s classes at what was then called Langford Junior High School would lead her to become the youngest person and one of only three women to ever pilot a Space Shuttle.  

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – The Space Shuttle Columbia soars from Launch Pad 39A at 2:02 p.m. EDT July 1, 1997 to begin the 16-day STS-94 Microgravity Science Laboratory-1 (MSL-1) mission. The launch window was opened 47 minutes earlier than the originally scheduled time of 2:37 p.m. to improve the opportunity to lift off before Florida summer rain showers reached the space center. The crew members are Mission Commander James D. Halsell Jr.; Pilot Susan L. Still; Payload Commander Janice Voss; Mission Specialists Michael L.Gernhardt and Donald A. Thomas; and Payload Specialists Roger K. Crouch and Gregory T. Linteris. Photo courtesy NASA

Kilrain took Brown’s classes in eighth and ninth grades and was one of the few people to pass the tough teacher, but her time with Brown developed a lifelong love of math.

“I took every math class I could from then on,” said Kilrain, who will be in Augusta for several events this week.

She will speak at the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce’s 115th annual meeting Feb. 15 at the Augusta Marriott Convention Center as well as signing copies of her children’s book “An Unlikely Astronaut” from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Augusta Museum of History and from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Book Tavern.

The Augusta Museum of History has some of Kilrain’s Space Shuttle memorabilia as part of an exhibition.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s with a house full of brothers, Kilrain, who is the daughter of the late Dr. Joseph Still for whom the Joseph Still Burn Center is named, joined many who dreamed of being an astronaut after watching TV to see the likes of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin travel to the moon, but the field was only open to a select few.

“There were no women in space, no women astronauts, no Black people yet. It was just all White men going to the moon. Twelve White men walked on the moon. That’s just the way it was,” she said. “There were very few women in traditional male fields. There were some, just not as many.”

 Even when Kilrain was trying to get into the space program, the odds were against her. Each time NASA opened applications for the space program, about 15,000 people applied. And now, only about 600 people in the world have ever gone into space.

Kilrain said she noticed the gender gap while at college. She spent her high school years at a boarding school and received her undergrad at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University before earning her master’s degree in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech in 1985.

“I was the only woman in any of my classes.  At that time, it wasn’t cool or ladylike to be smart in math or science. I figured I wasn’t going to fit in with the pretty cheerleader crowd anyway, so I might as well be smart,” she said.

Her pursuit of space led her to a career in the Navy where she was a test pilot and instructor, logging more than 3,000 flight hours on more than 30 different aircraft.    

Susan Still Kilrain. Photo courtesy NASA

While the goal of her book is to encourage children – not just girls – to believe in and follow their dreams, she also points out that people should enjoy the process of going after those dreams.

Kilrain said she loved being a Navy pilot. Even if becoming an astronaut had never happened, she still would have enjoyed that career.

Kilrain spent about 19 total days in space on two different missions — both in 1997 aboard the Columbia.

STS-83 was in early April 1997. It was cut short because of problems with one of the Shuttle’s three fuel cell power generation units, according to NASA’s website. The mission was 95 hours and 12 minutes and traveled 1.5 million miles in 63 orbits of the Earth.

Locals, she said, jokingly blamed the truncated mission on the Masters. She was interfering with Augusta’s top news for the week.

STS-94 (July 1-17, 1997) was a re-flight of the Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL-1) Spacelab mission and focused on materials and combustion science research in microgravity. Mission duration was 376 hours and 45 minutes, traveling 6.3 million miles in 251 orbits of the Earth, NASA said.

Kilrain said she still vividly remembers the first time seeing the planet from space.

A display of Susan Still Kilrain’s children’s book at the Book Tavern. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News

“My biggest thought was ‘I finally made it. Wow, here I am,’” she said.

After her time aboard the Space Shuttle, Kilrain got married, returned to her career in the Navy, later retiring as a commander, and became a stay-at-home mom of four at one point as her military husband pursued his career goals.

“There’s not a lot of demand for former astronauts in Belgium,” she said and laughed.

Kilrain is a motivational speaker and promotes STEM-based education.  She’s currently working on a prescriptive memoir about “things that I learned in male-dominated fields that still apply today,” she said.

Kilrain said it’s been many years since she’s made an official visit to Augusta, and she’s excited about the opportunity.

“Augusta is always going to be in my heart as to how I got to where I got to,” she said.

Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News and Inspiring: Women of Augusta, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at charmain@augustagoodnews.com. Sign up for the newsletter here.

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