Kay Hire’s sky-high life is settling a bit. The Mobile native-turned-astronaut wants to bring things down to Earth after retiring earlier this year.
“I’m shifting over to trying to say ‘yes’ and accept invitations from my family and friends to do things more, because for decades I’ve had to so often, unfortunately, say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry I won’t be able to join you because I have to work,’” Hire said.
Hire was keynote speaker at the Community Foundation of South Alabama’s “Women Who Rock It” breakfast forum in Mobile’s Renaissance Riverview Plaza on Aug. 16. The Murphy High School band filed in for a surprise performance to welcome their high-flying fellow alum to the stage.
Hire told the crowd of 340 about her youth at St. Pius X and Murphy, where she “figured out [she] was a math and science nerd.” While researching ROTC college scholarships, someone pointed her toward the U.S. Naval Academy and she earned an appointment in the second class opened to female cadets.
She was a groundbreaker. After graduation, and then flight school in Pensacola, Hire became the first female assigned to a combat flight squadron. After earning a berth at NASA, she was the first astronaut chosen from the Kennedy Space Center employee ranks. Her first shuttle mission was in 1998.
On her second shuttle flight, Hire brought a little bit of Mobile to the International Space Station (ISS). Day Nine of their mission fell on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010.
“I wanted to [bring] serpentine to see what it looked like in microgravity, but they didn’t want me to because there would be too much lint and it’s flammable,” Hire said. “I brought MoonPies for my crewmates.”
Hire also hung a Mardi Gras flag captured in photos from the ISS. In 2014, she presented the same flag to the Mobile City Council. It now resides at the History Museum of Mobile, along with verification of its status.
At the forum, hometown pride surfaced when an audience member commented on her friendship with Hire’s mother and how it enabled her to keep abreast of Hire’s career.
“I used to accuse my mother of grabbing people on the street and saying, ‘Hey, did you know my daughter’s an astronaut?’” Hire said, laughing.
Post-retirement, Hire continues to spread her enthusiasm for space exploration and technology. She shares her story with groups, schools and continues with “a bit of consulting on human space exploration.”
Hire also encourages youngsters to entertain dreams of space travel, pointing to the advent of private companies such as SpaceX in the field. She nodded to the thousands of individuals required to make every mission work, like the 400,000 who put Americans on the moon.
“Not everyone is an engineer, a scientist or a test pilot. I flew in space with a veterinarian on my first mission in 1998,” Hire said. “We have to have dieticians to figure out the food we need to eat, attorneys doing contracts and agreements, accountants … This whole space industry requires all skills.”
She was quick to note the recently proposed Space Force as something altogether different. It’s about consolidation and streamlining within the Department of Defense.
“This isn’t Starfleet Academy or laypeople flying in space. This is providing space-based capabilities to the war fighter,” the Navy pilot explained.
Hire is excited about Artemis, the new program to renew human presence on and near the moon. A lot of her enthusiasm comes from its role as a stepping stone on the way to Mars. She readily summons the challenges in human exploration of our planetary neighbor.
There’s distance. The moon is only three days away under current methods. It would take nearly nine months to reach Mars.
“Imagine a camping trip. If you’re going fishing, you could catch and eat fish, or hunting and whatever and maybe there’s a clear water stream. You could get drinking water. Imagine if you have a two-year trip where you have to bring all the oxygen, all the food and then you have to deal with all the trash and all that stuff,” Hire said.
She thinks an innovative solution lurks, that an unrealized idea for advancing propulsion systems is awaiting discovery. That’s why she encourages youngsters to foster “radical, crazy ideas” for flight, something straight from science fiction.
“I don’t know if I have it exactly memorized, but science fiction writer Robert Heinlein – who, by the way, was also a Naval Academy graduate – had a quote: ‘It’s considered impossible until it’s done,’” Hire said. “Somebody’s just got to come up with figuring out how to do it.”
Health is a formidable concern. We know extended stay in the ISS’s microgravity reduces bone density and muscle mass. Mars’ gravity is roughly one-third of Earth’s and the moon is one-sixth. Mitigating those health effects will be key on long stays.
Earth’s atmosphere shields us from deadly cosmic rays and its magnetic field does the same with dangerous solar winds. The latter protects ISS but the moon and Mars don’t have either buffer.
Communications are hampered. It takes signals nearly 20 minutes to reach Mars from Earth. That’s 40 minutes to pose a question and then get an answer. Until we find a way around the universal limit of the speed of light, we’re stuck with it.
“I think it’s going to revert back to … maybe think about the way ships in general used to operate. When they left port, people waved goodbye and at some point they came back … Because of the length of time involved … you’re going to feel a lot more disconnected like those sailors in the middle of the ocean,” Hire said.
She thinks continued investment in space exploration benefits everyone, though it’s not always appreciated. In a region exposed to hurricanes, satellite information can save lives. She pointed to phones, the Global Positioning System and automatic teller machine networks as spinoff technologies.
“Sometimes the technology we develop ends up in medical [applications] or robotics. I think folks don’t have any idea how many space-based capabilities they’re utilizing on a daily basis, minute to minute,” Hire said.
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