Moultrie Observer

Local News

December 4, 2012

From tobacco fields to NASA

Moultrie native photographed the space shuttle for more than 20 years

MOULTRIE — For Moultrie native Kim Shiflett, summers working in tobacco and hay fields and tending cattle taught him the value of hard work.

Those lessons would pay off later as he took a love of photography to the space shuttle program where he got a front seat to history, taking pictures of shuttle landings and later working with the astronauts.

Shiflett, 56, worked with the program for a private contractor for more than 20 years, from 1987 until the last flight in July 2011. Currently he is involved in photographing Curiosity, the latest Mars rover program.

A 1973 Moultrie High School graduate, Shiflett was studying art at Valdosta State College when a fellow student suggested a photography class.

“I did and I was hooked,” he said. “I learned everything there was to know about photography. I was fascinated with the science of it and enjoyed the artistic medium it offered.”

After the explosion of the Challenger in 1986, Shiflett hired photographer Rick Wetherington at the lab where he was working as Wetherington was looking for work with the sudden grounding of the shuttle program.

“In 1986 I stood in front of the photo laboratory at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., and watched as the space shuttle Challenger exploded and fell from the sky. I remember the air was cold for Florida, and the sky was so clear and blue. It had gotten into the low 30s that morning. This event, as sad as it was, changed my future.”

Shiflett and Wetherington found that they had a lot in common, including both having grandparents living in Adel.

“Rich and his brother lived in Florida and were sent up to their grandparents every summer to work the farm in Adel. We talked about cropping tobacco, bailing hay and taking care of livestock for a summer job. It was very hard work, we both agreed.”

The connection with Wetherington proved to be a stroke of luck as his friend eventually went back to work at Kennedy Space Center and later encouraged him to apply for a photographer’s position for which he was hired.

Working for Technicolor, which was contracted for all photography at the center, he began working in the “Return to Flight” that sent the shuttle back into space.

“I was standing next to monstrous rockets and of course the space shuttles,” he said. “I was inside them, around them, under them, and sometimes on top of them taking all sorts of pictures. In those days we didn’t have digital. All we had was film. Sometimes it would be days before I knew I was successful with the pictures I had taken.”

For the first year he worked processing film in the lab and doing prints, but in 1988 he took an opening as a photographer. During that time he photographed big rockets, the Hubble telescope, Mars rovers and satellites.

“I worked hard. I gave 110 percent. I had never seen anything like this. I wanted to do my very best and it paid off.”

After several years Shiflett was selected to photograph shuttle crew members as they prepared for missions and launched the craft, getting to know them and their families.

This intimacy with the crew and families made Feb. 1, 2003, when shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, even more painful.

“I was standing beside the SLF (shuttle landing facility) when radio communications between the shuttle commander and ground operations stopped. There was communication with the vehicle, then there was silence. That’s when we realized there was a problem.

“I looked around to see everyone still looking at the sky, waiting to hear the signature twin sonic booms. They never came.”

Afterwards, Shiflett’s job included months of photographing the pieces of the shuttle.

“It was a difficult time for me,” he said. “The space program made changes, good and safe changes. We again returned to flight.”

When the 135th, aWhennd final, flight landed at 5:45 a.m. on July 22,  2011, Shiflett was standing at the fence beside the landing facility. Despite the realization that it was the last flight, he knew he was there to do his job.

“My heart was beating fast as it always does just before it lands,” he said. “No lights, nothing blinking, just the sound of air being pushed out of the way as it reaches touchdown. I was able to get some good pictures as it was landing.

“Walking down a row in a tobacco field, sweat pouring from my face, leaves bunched under my arm, a clattering tractor at my destination, I never imagined a small-town boy like me could grow up to be a part of the space program.”

Not he continues documenting space history through his work with the massive Atlas and Delta rockets and the Mars rover.

“We do a lot of live TV there with NASA television, Kennedy Space Center television,” he said. “We have the cameras and shoot that activity.”

Betty Shiflett, Shiflett’s mom, said she and her late husband Robert believed in teaching their son and three daughters the importance of work.

“That’s just one of the things we believed in,” she said. “Before they were old enough to go to town and work he worked on farms with different people. They’ve all been very successful and they all know how to work.”

Betty Shiflett said it was great that her son was able to turn his passion into a job he loves.

“Photography is his heart,” she said. “I think one of his greatest days was when they assigned him to the astronauts. I’m excited for him, that he loves his work as much as he does.”

Shiflett’s photography can be seen at www.ksc.nasa.gov under the image and video gallery.

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