Going from Air Force to NASA blue for astronaut wings


image Image: Astronaut and pilot Col. Pam Melroy is assisted by three scuba-equipped divers in the deep pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the Sonny Carter Training Facility near the Johnson Space Center. She and the rest of the STS-92 crew were participating in an emergency bailout training exercise preparing for next year's scheduled visit to the International Space Station. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

It is the all too famous image seen across the world -- the orange suits, the big smiles, the friendly waves -- as an astronaut crew prepares to launch out of Earth's orbit. Since the first U.S. manned space flight in 1961, the Air Force has been a part of the nation's space program.

There are some 54 former astronauts as well as 23 current astronauts and one astronaut candidate who also wear Air Force blue.

Ask any astronaut and he or she will say the most exciting day for anyone who wants to travel into space is the day he or she is selected to be an astronaut candidate. But only then does the real work begin. It can take up to two years of training to become fully qualified. But for those who choose a life among the stars, the extensive training and the long wait are well worth it.

In 1959, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration asked the military services to list members who met specific qualifications. According to NASA officials, jet aircraft flight experience and engineering training were required for its first astronauts. Height could be no more than 5 feet 11 inches because of limited cabin space available in the Mercury space capsule being designed. After many series of intense physical and psychological screenings, NASA selected seven men from an original field of 500 candidates, three of whom were Airmen -- Capts. L. Gordon Cooper Jr., Virgil "Gus" Grissom and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton.

The first group of astronaut candidates for the space shuttle program was selected in January 1978. By then, prime emphasis had shifted away from flight experience toward superior academic qualifications, where astronaut selection still stands today.

Duane Ross has 37 years of experience at Johnson Space Center in Houston selecting and training astronauts. NASA receives about 3,000 applications every two years when it selects its next class, said the astronaut candidate selection and training manager.

Out of the thousands, 100 will be interviewed and about 10 will be selected. Both civilian and military applicants are considered.

"The number of new applicants needed is always fluctuating," Mr. Ross explained. "How many we need is based on projecting NASA's needs five years from now."

It has been four years since the last astronaut class was chosen. NASA canceled the 2002 selection board because of a lower projected need. The latest astronaut class was selected in April and included an Air Force bluesuiter as one of only two pilots in the class of 11.

When Col. Pam Melroy reported to Johnson Space Center for astronaut training in 1995, she was finally completing her plan, conceived from the moment she began courses at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and set foot in undergraduate pilot training in 1985.

"What we do is so much fun," the Rochester N.Y., native said. "The harder something is, the more fun it is. It [astronaut training] tests ourselves."

Candidates participate full time for a year during initial astronaut training at Johnson Space Center. This includes more than 60 classroom lessons in shuttle systems, mathematics, basic science, navigation, geology, meteorology and a host of other science courses; studies in more than 40 workbooks; 25 computer-based lessons; and a multitude of training in different simulators, including virtual reality trainers. Candidates also receive training in land and sea survival, scuba diving and space suits.

For Colonel Melroy, it is the water survival part she finds most physically demanding.

"I just meet the minimum height to be a pilot," she said. "And because of that I have to use some ingenuity to pull myself up into the raft with the full ėpumpkin' pressure suit on."

So how does Colonel Melroy solve this dilemma? When in the water, she turns her back to the raft, grabs hold of the end and pulls the raft under her.

"It doesn't matter how silly you look," she said.

In addition, candidates must also complete minimum flying hours. Pilot candidates maintain their proficiency flying 15 hours a month in NASA's fleet of two-seat T-38 Talon jets and practicing orbiter landings in the shuttle training aircraft, a modified Gulfstream corporate jet aircraft. Mission and payload specialists fly a minimum of four hours a month in the back seat of the Talon.

Now after serving as pilot on two shuttle flights -- STS-92 in 2000 and STS-112 in 2002 -- Colonel Melroy can add 562 space hours to her more than 5,000 hours of flight time in more than 45 different aircraft.

Advanced training includes 16 different courses covering all crew training requirements. Courses range from guidance, navigation and control systems to payload deployment and retrieval systems. Advanced training continues even after a crew has been given a flight assignment.

After completing training, astronauts are given a full time office assignment with NASA, but must still maintain proficiency in their advanced training while waiting for a flight assignment. And often times, astronauts are called upon for public relations events. Colonel Melory is not currently assigned to a flight and is working with NASA in technical duties supporting the investigation of the Columbia shuttle accident last year.

Even though Col. Eileen Collins has been an astronaut for 13 years, she still remembers the moment she was assigned to her first shuttle flight, STS-63 in February 1995, the first flight of the new joint Russian-American Space Program.

"That by far was the most memorable assignment in my career," said the 26-year Air Force veteran whose first job was supposed to be as a computer systems design engineer at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. That was before the Air Force began to allow women pilots.

Once an astronaut is assigned to a shuttle mission, training once again becomes a full-time endeavor. But this time, the training is unique to the assigned mission and is more intense to include multi-system malfunction scenarios and integrated training with the assigned Mission Control Center flight control team who will assist from Earth. Colonel Collins is currently in full-time training for her next shuttle mission as commander of STS-114.

"You need to learn to juggle a lot of different things," said Colonel Collins, who was the first female shuttle pilot and commander. "You're constantly changing from different phases of training. Half a day you're in the T-38, then that afternoon you're giving a speech to the public, but then the next day you're in the pool training all day. You have to adapt quickly."

By far, learning to handle the immense workload of training in any given day is the one thing astronauts agree is the hardest to get used too. Besides the many hours training in simulators or working in a virtual reality world, they must also learn skills in photography and videography, since once they are in space they have only themselves to rely on to "capture the moments" for the world below.

And for Colonel Melroy, it is those non-flying skills that have become her favorites.

"Teaching a rookie astronaut how to use the shuttle kitchen in zero-g [gravity]," she said. "Or learning how to stow gear in space. Everything we thought we knew how to do, we have to learn all over again."

As part of the newest astronaut selection class, Maj. Jim Dutton Jr., assistant operations officer for the 411th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards AFB, Calif., beat out nearly 2,900 other applicants his first-time applying for the job. After a six-month wait following his formal interview and nearly a year since his application met the Air Force board, Major Dutton's dream of "sharing the vision and excitement of space exploration" is coming true.

"In the end, I boiled (the desire to be an astronaut) down to four things. A love for space, the desire to contribute to a great endeavor, to be able to work with exceptional people who share the same vision and to play a part in continuing to push outward the boundaries of human space travel," said the 35-year-old from Eugene, Ore.

Major Dutton's part in pushing those boundaries started when he reported for a year and a half of candidate training -- beginning with a week of survival training in Maine and then flying the T-38 Talon. Although this part of training may be easy for the F/A-22 Raptor test pilot, the hardest part Major Dutton expects is his geology lessons.

"I never studied it."

Although the study time involved in astronaut training is lengthier than that of any other professional career requiring graduate or post-graduate study, for many it is a long steadfast dream come true. And then the long work hours simply become a labor of love.

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