In June, David Hilmers will be inducted into The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s 2024 U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame

In June, David Hilmers will be inducted into The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s 2024 U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame (NASA)

(Tribune News Service) — It was 1980 and Col. David Hilmers was leading a small command of Marines in Japan when a bulletin came across his desk. NASA was hiring astronauts.

With the opportunity right in front of him, he figured it was worth a shot.

“I always felt like astronauts were really cool and going into space would be really cool, but I never pictured myself doing that,” he said. “It was one of those things that I really didn’t think I had a great chance of being selected for, but I might as well. It was like entering a sweepstakes.”

Hilmers decided to take a chance and after a lengthy process, the DeWitt, Iowa, native went on to enjoy a 12-year career with NASA, flying in four missions. In June, he will be inducted into The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s 2024 U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, joining more than 100 other astronauts honored in the exhibit at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Before he became a colonel and an astronaut, Hilmers grew up in DeWitt where his father worked as a florist. A practical man, his dad steered him away from his dream of becoming a doctor and encouraged him to study mathematics when he went off to college at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.

“I think I was like many college students at the time. Just trying to enjoy the college life,” he said. “I think I was just kind of going with the flow.”

During his four years as a Ram, Hilmers played football, wrestled and was on the track and field team. In the back of his mind, and the minds of many other young men at the time, was the uncertainty of the Vietnam War.

In 1969 the government introduced a lottery where men could determine how likely they were to be drafted, with the lower numbers having the highest probability. Hilmers drew lottery number 20.

“I was relatively certain that once I graduated from college I’d be drafted so I preempted everything by joining the Marines my junior year,” he said.

The program allowed him to complete his basic training the summer before his senior year. Upon graduation from Cornell in 1972, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

By 1978 word got out that NASA had begun recruiting military members to be astronauts, but Hilmers was in school pursuing further degrees and was focusing on completing flight training for the Marines.

“Space wasn’t really in my big plans for the future,” he said, adding the thought of wanting to become a doctor lingered in his mind.

Then, in 1980, Hilmers found himself overseas for the third time, this time in Japan, where he decided to take a chance and apply to be an astronaut.

After sending in his application, it was forwarded to the Department of Defense ( DOD), then put in the hopper with other approved applications. The process was long and slow, causing Hilmers to think he had been cut.

“I knew the chances were pretty low and I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought,” he said. “Eventually I got a call and they asked me to take the physical.”

The next thing he knew, Hilmers was at the Kennedy Space Station in Houston for his interview. Still, he didn’t think space was in the cards.

“I left that interview that week going, ‘There are so many really, really, really qualified candidates that I don’t really feel like I have much of a chance but it was a great opportunity,’” he said.

Months went by and the call Hilmers was waiting for finally happened. They asked if he was still interested in becoming an astronaut, and his response was immediate.

“That was it,” he said. “It was an experience I would not have given up for anything in the world.”

Throughout his 12-year career he flew four missions for NASA, the first aboard Atlantis on a classified mission for the DOD in 1985.

“Being able to see places and seeing the globe as a whole, being able to see the continents and countries going by, not in the way that you learn about in geography class but actually seeing them out the window and seeing the Earth is a ball rotating under you, it’s quite a remarkable experience,” he said.

In 1986, tragedy struck for NASA when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight. The shuttle program was put on hiatus.

By 1988, NASA was ready to try again and Hilmers boarded STS-26, the “Return to Flight” crew. The discovery flight lasted four days, one hour and 11 seconds according to NASA.

“That was special in a way (because) it brought America back to space,” he said.

The crew launched a satellite that would allow the shuttle communicate with the team on Earth the entire time. Otherwise, astronauts had to rely on ground stations, and there could be large gaps in the communication stream because of the distance.

Hilmers’ third mission was classified, but took him farther north and south than any other US mission ever went, and ever will go, he said.

“I can say that we got to see more of the world than any other U.S. astronaut at least,” he said.

While Hilmers was orbiting the world, he continuously looked back on it and thought of the people below. It reignited the spark of wanting to become a doctor and help those who needed it most.

After returning from his third mission, Hilmers started night classes to begin catching up on coursework before starting medical school. In April 1991, the same week he was about to take the entrance exam, he was asked to go on one last mission.

Astronaut Sonny Carter had died in a plane crash but was scheduled to participate in a mission that fall. Hilmers was asked to take his place and agreed, so long as NASA knew he was not giving up on his physician dreams any longer.

Four weeks before the scheduled launch, Hilmers was accepted into the Baylor College of Medicine, but in January of 1992, he took off on his fourth and final mission. A science mission, Hilmers said the crew set up a “space lab” in the back where astronauts performed experiments with fruit flies and studied plant growth.

Six months after his return, Hilmers was able to retire from both NASA and the Marines and finally start medical school.

“That was a busy year,” he said.

He completed medical school and his residency at Baylor College of Medicine, finishing both the internal medicine and pediatrics programs, and obtained a Master of Public Health degree.

In the 30 years since his retirement, Hilmers has kept himself busy as a professor of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Baylor. He now resides in Australia where he also works as the chief medical officer for an Australian-based NGO, Hepatitis B Free (HBF), which was founded by his wife, Dr. Alice Lee.

Since 2013, HBF has worked with governments and local partners to establish hepatitis treatment programs in low-income countries. Hilmers’ true love, he said, has always been volunteer medical work and disaster relief in low-resource countries. He has served in nearly 60 countries.

He remains involved with the space program as a faculty member in Baylor College’s Center for Space Medicine since its inception and holds a position with NASA as the Exploration Medicine technical lead for the Clinical Science Team.

This summer Hilmers will make it back to the United States to accept his nomination into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. He’s said his story is not very interesting, given he never had childhood aspirations to go space, but the colleagues who nominated him for the honor evidently feel differently.

Interesting or not, Hilmers said he will never forget the career he had 30 years ago. He’s happy his coworkers didn’t either.

“I realize that it doesn’t change anything that I did while I was an astronaut, but I feel honored that people I work with and people I knew and even people I never met decided I was worthy to be in this group,” he said. “It’s quite an honor an I feel very fortunate that I am remembered after all these years.”

(c)2024 Quad City Times, Davenport, Iowa

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