Astronaut David Hilmers
From Space Missions to the Medical Field: Astronaut David Hilmers. “It’s Never Too Late to Live Out Your Dreams”
Written by Nikki Jimenez
David Hilmers was just another boy who grew up in a small town in Iowa with dreams of becoming a doctor. He worked hard in school, had a family, and served his country through the Marine Corps. Through a series of events that Hilmers attributes to God, he was selected to be on a NASA team of pilots and mission specialists in 1980. From there, he served on four missions to space before pursuing the medical field full time. Since then, Hilmers has traveled the world on disaster-relief and medical missionary trips treating and healing the lives of hundreds. Risen talks to Hilmers as he recalls his mission to fulfill his deep desire to help others, and having no idea of the journey God would take him on to fulfill that dream.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Growing up, you set your eyes on some pretty big goals including medical school. But the first time you applied, you didn’t get the response you had hoped. I think a lot of people can relate to you in that their dreams are cut short or diverted, so how did you keep moving forward?
David Hilmers: The first time I applied to medical school I didn’t get very encouraging words. But there were other paths that were open at the time. Sometimes you think, “Well, that door doesn’t look open right now, so I’ll take this other one.” But throughout the years after that, I continued to have that dream and think that there’s something missing. There was something that I wanted to do and it kept coming back to medicine. I finally had a point in my life that was really the perfect time. After a number of years in the Marine Corps and being able to retire and then having my last flight with NASA, I said, “Okay Lord, I don’t know if I’m too old for this, or if this is what you really want for me, but I’m going to go as far with it as I can.” And of course, I did it. I look back now and see how blessed I was. I believe that whatever you dream is possible through not only your own work, but with God’s blessing. It’s also never too late to really live out your dreams.
Risen Magazine: God guided you through the scenic route to becoming a doctor. One of those stops along the way was as an astronaut with NASA. Describe the sights you saw in space.
David Hilmers: It’s an absolutely unique view of the cosmos, either looking out into space or looking back toward the Earth. I think the latter is even more impressive. It gives you a completely different perspective on it, giving you an idea of the majesty and the creation of what God has made. It says in Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” I don’t think there’s ever been a more profound expression of that than what I saw from space. Even getting into space is the most amazing 8.5-minute ride that you can imagine. Going from sitting still on the Earth to 17,500 miles an hour in just a little bit of time, is amazing. On my very first mission in space, I saw my first sunset. It was so beautiful. I was amazed that every 45 minutes you see a sunrise and sunset. I turned to one of my colleagues and asked him if this is how it always is and he told me, “It’s just a sunset.” I kind of relate this experience to our faith. The first time we hear the message of Christ, we take it in and think of how wonderful it is, but it’s so easy to become used to our salvation. We take it for granted, but I know we can’t.
Risen Magazine: In your book, you describe a time where you weighed the “ifs” and “thens” in your life. We can all get caught up in asking ourselves that, but you attest your life’s course of events to God saying you just had to get out of the way. What does that look like?
David Hilmers: Sometimes that’s hard. In my life I’ve done things where I said, “Okay, I’m just going to do this, God show me the right way,” and other times I’m told to wait on the Lord. It’s hard to know what’s right – to know what’s the right thing to do. I think a lot of that is prayer and counsel from good Christian friends that you trust. I know that I had a lot of advice in that regard. There’s no formula that I can really say is the right way.
When I was being considered for selection for the astronaut officer, logistically it didn’t look like everything could come together at the right time. But the amazing set of circumstances happened and it got arranged. I look back at that and think that sometimes God makes things happen and other times I think he wants us to step up in faith.
But there’s no formula for it. If it was just something you can program into a computer that would spit out the answer of what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to act, if you’re supposed to be proactive or reactive…well, life would be very simple, but not nearly as exciting.
Risen Magazine: You’ve taken four missions to space, completed your goal of medical school and traveled around the world helping people. But, there was a time in your life when you were not satisfied with everything God had given you. Where do you think that feeling comes from and how do you overcome it?
David Hilmers: It’s easy to forget that God has always been faithful to us. I remember thinking, “God, what have you done for me today?” I, of all people, should be thankful for what God has done for me, and the ways that he has manifested his glory in my life. Yet it’s so easy to watch a sunrise from space and take it for granted after you’ve seen it a number of times.
I remember another similar thought that I not only saw in me but in other people. People would say they always wanted to be an astronaut and that’s all they ever wanted to do. They get to the astronaut office and they’re selected. Their dream has come true, but then they complain that another person gets to fly before they do. It seems like the more you’re given the more you want. I really think the key to it is being thankful for what you’ve been given. We live in the present and have dreams for the future. We also need to remember the past and remember the mighty promises that God has kept to us and who God is.
We live in the present and have dreams for the future. We also need to remember the past and remember the mighty promises that God has kept to us and who God is.
Risen Magazine: There is a great need to care for those less fortunate than we are. As a physician, you’ve traveled the world, caring for the sick, young and old. How do you stay positive amongst all the tragedy that happens in the world?
David Hilmers: That’s a good question. That’s something that is often asked of me, but I don’t really get discouraged or think of it that way. I always think that if I went on a mission and I found one person that I could help or make better because I went, then I feel like it was worthwhile. I’ve seen a lot of poverty, but I don’t have to go to Africa or Asia or wherever to know that there’s always going to be the poor, hungry, and sick. I can see it here. I can see it where I work at a county hospital that cares for the poor and mostly uninsured people. We see it every day, so going out into the rest of the world doesn’t change that feeling. But I can do something. I know that I’m one person and if I can help one person, for me, that’s enough.
Risen Magazine: What do you suggest is one way to help us see how God works in our lives?
David Hilmers: I’m an imperfect sinner that by grace, God has chosen to work some pretty mighty things. I’m amazed that as I went through the exercise of looking back through the details of my life and really putting them in writing, how it becomes even more evident of the role God has played in my life than there ever would have been if I was just left thinking about them. It’s an exercise I would encourage any reader to do. Go back and write it down. You’ll be amazed at discovering the things that God’s hand was directly in, that you may have forgotten.
Risen Magazine: Whether you were in space, or practicing medicine… a lot of science goes into both. How has science impacted yoir faith?
David Hilmers: I think it makes me even more amazed at God’s creation; there’s no doubt about it when you get into space. Something had to make all of this in an intelligent way, as everyday new things are being unraveled. I believe that incredibly intelligent power was able to bring this all together and it really strengthens my faith.
I look back at that and think that sometimes God makes things happen and other times I think he wants us to step up in faith.
Risen Magazine: In each of our lives, we have an opportunity to create a legacy for the lives we live, no matter how short or how long. What does that look like for you?
David Hilmers: I’ve learned that not only can God use me directly in the lives of others, like what he put in my heart as a young kid to help others, but to also be used as an example of what God can accomplish in a life. God has used me, an imperfect being with thoughts, flaws and imperfections for good. As I look back at what God has allowed me to do, the astronaut journey was an opening for me to touch a lot of young people’s lives and that they can look up to me, whether it was deserved or not. I think that God has given me that to use as a springboard or sounding board to meet others and tell others about my faith.
I don’t think I’m anything really special as far as intelligence or doing things…it’s really God putting things in the right places in the right time and making things happen. He can take something as imperfect as I was and give me the opportunity to do all these things and inspire young people to reach for their dreams. I want to encourage them to have dreams that are worthy of what they can do or even higher than what they think they can reach. Even if it seems like your dream is being postponed for many years or you’re too old to achieve it, think about it again. It may be possible.
I’d like to leave a legacy for my own kids, grandkids and any other young person out there to look at me as an example of what God can do in a life. I don’t have any big goals of being famous. It really is enough for me to feel like I’ve done something that God wants me to do and has put in me, that is important. Everybody has within themself the ability to do things for others that God really commands them to do.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2013