NASA Astronaut Application: Goals, Expectations, and Reality

nasa_astronaut_job_-100625886-primary_idge

This last Monday, December 14th 2015, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, began accepting applications for the Astronaut Corps. The link can be found HERE

Unlike the period in which NASA operated the space shuttle and the U.S. government regularly recruited new astronauts, the post shuttle period has seen a diminished requirement for new applicants and flyable candidates.  The most recent opportunity to apply to be an astronaut was announced in 2011, and in 2013, just 8 individuals were chosen from a pool of 6,372 applicants.

My interest in spaceflight began early- But I I’m not going to rehash a story so many others have stated before. Instead, I will say that I had many other interests too, some of which were more achievable in the near-term, which ultimately became the path I followed.

It is interesting to have become involved enough in space community to know more than a few highly competitive individuals who will be submitting application to NASA this round. One those who applied in 2011 and made it to the interview portion of the process was Brian Shiro, a geophysicist working for NOAA. (read his blog here) He has written several posts documenting his experience, as well as recent article in Forbes about the recent call for applications.

In his article, Shiro states a list of observations about he NASA astronaut selection process. Number two on the list is “set realistic expectations”.  We all have a plan for ourselves, a series of accomplishments we hope to achieve in our lifetimes. We set these expectations – and if we’re focused enough, we can achieve them.  I’ve always held myself to a high standard, competitively focused and dedicated to my goals. But along the way, life happens, and managing my expectations has been an often bitter aftertaste to the reality of events.

Unfortunately, I made a choice in my past to expedite my undergraduate education and received my BA before heading to flight school with the Air Force. That degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Geography, provided me with a background in cartography, culture, and geopolitical affairs that has aided me every day as an officer in the Armed Forces.  I made a decision then to ensure I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to fly as a military aviator. Unfortunately, the degree I earned is not one sought by NASA for applicants to the Astronaut Corps.

While I’m disappointed, I understand the limitations indicated in the application. I do wish there was a recourse- some allowance for comparable experience or skillset. But that is not the case.

Rather than see this as the end of a dream, I choose to see this as the affirming of my belief in the emerging commercial spaceflight opportunities.

For anyone who knows me well or follows this blog, you know that not only am I an advocate for the commercial spaceflight industry, but that I have been working diligently to prepare myself to work in that sector.  From my graduate studies to my flying experience and more recently practical training courses, I am attempting to build a foundation of applicable achievements that can be utilized in commercial spaceflight.

screenshot221

While it is true that any market for commercial astronauts is still in the future, and that any such men and women won’t be part of NASA’s missions to Mars, the cornerstone of that industry is being made possible today.  From CubeSats to commercial space stations, new space enterprises other than those operated by federal institutions are being launched all the time.  NASA may soon become just one of many pathways to becoming an astronaut.

That is not to say the commercial path will be easier- the existing commercial spaceflight companies have had their pick of former NASA astronauts who’ve left the agency in recent years, following the retirement of the space shuttle. These men and women will set a high standard for the potential applicants that follow.  NASA’s astronaut corps is still a rather small collection of individuals, however, and it can’t sustain an emerging industry alone. Even pessimistic assumptions imply that these new space companies will need to employ more commercial payload specialists and pilots than are currently working for America’s space agency.

Despite the limitations of my education to date, I’ve sought opportunities to demonstrate my talents to commercial spaceflight industry wherever I can.  From analog simulations to training as a candidate for suborbital payload operation, I look for ways to add new skills and increase my knowledge in the subjects sought by NASA for the astronaut corps. I read informative books and papers on a wide spectrum of subjects related to aerospace and astronautics. When my schedule allows, I attend conferences and summits in order to meet with and network professionals in the industry. And I write about my experiences in order to help others learn about these opportunities as well.  Every decision I make is one to better myself, and better my chance at being selected to take part in future spaceflight projects.

I won’t be submitting an application to be astronaut with NASA this round. Maybe sometime in the future, my accumulated education and experience will meet the requirements laid out by the space agency. For now, I will continue to improve myself and work toward helping to a build a future where there is more than one pathway to the stars.

The author free-floating on a parabolic flight to test a commercial spacesuit design, 2015

The author free-floating on a parabolic flight to test a commercial spacesuit design, 2015

 

Film Review: The Martian

maxresdefault

Every now and then space geeks are treated to a great, scientifically feasible science-fiction film.  I am happy to report that The Martian, a film adaption of the novel by the same title, is one of those films.

For those of you who haven’t read the book by author Andy Weir, go do so. In fact, you should go do that now so you can watch the film when it’s available in theaters. Really, go do it.

The Martian is a simple premise: Sometime in the near future, on the third human exploration mission to the planet Mars, a martian dust storm forces the crew to evacuate and abort the mission. Launching from the surface of the storm battered planet, they escape, leaving behind one of the crew whom they believe is killed in the attempt to reach the spacecraft.  Except he doesn’t die.

Instead, fictional astronaut and reluctant protagonist of the drama Mark Watney (played by deftly by Matt Damon) is marooned alone, very much alive, on the surface of Mars.  Faced with incomparable desolation and a meager collection of leftover equipment, Watney is forced to adapt in order to survive before a rescue mission can be launched years later.

Much of the angst fans of the book will center on the next 2 hours of the film: does it portray the science (and engineering) correctly?  Of course the answer is yes AND no. For obvious reasons, there are simply some aspects of interplanetary life that just cannot be replicated on Earth. (Or effectively in CGI, for that matter.) For example Mars has only 38 % percent of the gravity found on Earth.  The film does it’s best to diminish the impediment of Earth’s 1G, but there is just so much that can be done here on our orbital rock. Wisely, director Ridley Scott didn’t attempt to force unnecessary and poorly simulated Martian gravity into the film.

Our astronaut hero is left on Mars with but a few months ration remaining in the habitat module he makes home.  Ingeniously, he endeavors to grow potatoes from some of the few remaining examples cached in the crew’s stores. Now, when he pours raw martian regolith (as non-organic soil on extraterrestrial planets is called), I cringed.  The actual surface of Mars, besides being rich in oxidized elements, has been found to contain perchlorates– an ammonium-based substance toxic to most lifeforms, including humans. Astronauts living on Mars would be constantly working to mitigate the exposure to these chemicals. Disregarding this, the premise of growing crops to supplement future Martian explorer’s diets is a well established concept. Even today, research into growing foodstuffs on Mars is a full-time occupation for some scientists.

download (1)

I want to point out I’m not a scientist- I cannot vouch for the veracity of every aspect of the film’s scientific accuracy. (Although I have taken part in a long-duration Mars Mission Simulation)  There are some elements in the film which will likely leave some more literal viewers aghast.  I’m not one of those viewers- I can enjoy the film for it’s entertainment value alone.  Instead, space geeks should rejoice that this story remains true to the novel in almost every respect.

Space enthusiasts and aficionados will be excited to see the array of space exploration technology seen in the film. Habitat module? Remarkably similar to proposed NASA configurations. Mars rover? Again- nearly straight from the pages of industry’s designs. Even the spacesuit- which is considerably more form-fitting than contemporary EVA suits being tested BY NASA- has a basis in reality. (The Dava Newman bio-suit) Even as I typed this review, NASA unveiled a design concept for a Mars Ascent Vehicle, or “MAV”, just tlike the one that plays a key role in the plot of The Martian.

It can be said the real star of this film is Mars itself. There have been many depictions of the red planet in movies, some more accurate than others, and some downright laughable.  Perhaps because the surface of Mars is slowly becoming a part of the collective consciousness through the images returned from the rovers now exploring its geology, it takes more than just a red filter and matte frames of Monument Valley to adequately portray the planet in a movie.  The Martian doesn’t falter in this element. Wide alluvial plains, windswept hills, dust devils- even the incomparable Tharsis volcanoes make an appearance in the film.  (Some of the topography brought back memories of flying over the Sahara in Southern Algeria from my time in the service)

Perhaps the major sticking point in the science shown in the movie is very dust storm that strands poor Watney in the first minutes of the motion picture.  Mars does endure massive dust storms that envelope entire hemispheres for months at a time- but with the average density of the atmosphere being close to just 1% of that found on Earth, the devastating chaos featured in The Martian is an exaggeration of tremendous magnitudes. There is an enlightening article featured at Space.com by Elizabeth Howell that investigates this issue in detail- ‘The Martian’ Dust Storm Would Actually Be a Breeze. To read what NASA has to say about the dangers of Martian dust storms, click HERE.

The film is also limited in another dimension that just cannot be experienced in the same fashion as the novel: time.  The tedious efforts to farm, construct makeshift repairs, and simply wait was an aspect of the book that had a discernible impact in literary form. But constrained by the period in which a feature film can run, Watney’s sentence on Mars seems much too quick. The sequence depicting his cross-country road trip to seek out the defunct Pathfinder lander is an example. However, one manner in which the film succeeds in this conundrum is the visual degradation Watney experiences over the course of the story.  When we first see Damon on screen, he is a muscled movie star. By the time his character is preparing for his desperate rescue, he appears, gaunt, malnourished, and broken.  That gradual slide toward doom plays well in the film.

Besides our abandoned hero, The Martian also features a diverse cast of supporting characters that add to the whole of the odyssey.  This is a place where the film succeeds- adding a textured backdrop to Watney’s arc.  Taking place mostly at either the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, these sequences of the film at first seem jarring- almost TOO much contrast from the panorama of Martian topography. But as the audience comes to know the characters, they become more and more essential to the overall story.

the-martian-chart-1024x576

The crew of the Ares spacecraft is led by Commander Lewis, played by a guilt-ridden Jessica Chastain. Her crew is made up of Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan),  and Alex Vogel (Askel Hennie, who seems a ringer for real-life astronaut Luca Parmitano).  In many ways, the Ares crew has even fewer resources available to them to effect Watney’s rescue than he does himself. With just a docking hatch, a spacesuit, and some orbital velocity, they ensure the story happens. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen more character development of the crew- but the film reflects the book in this regard neatly.  But for what the Ares sequences lack in-depth, they make up for in grandeur on the screen. (The interior of the spacecraft seems almost laboratory-clean, at least in comparison to photographs of the interior of the International Space Station)

More impact comes through in the scenes taking place on Earth.  The audience is treated to the politics of mission management at JSC as well as the technical trouble-shooting of the engineers at JPL.  It is through the actions of the mission directors and staff that we see how the world reacts to the discovery that astronaut Watney is alive, and the frustration of being unable to devise a way to reach him as quickly as necessary.

A very serious Jeff Daniels plays “the director of NASA” (the actual title is “Administrator“), shown mostly presenting press conferences and sparring over rescue plans with flight directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetal Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean).  Circling around them is an array of supporting characters whose roles are to enable the solution that help to rescue Watney.  I was pleasantly surprised how well the scenes featuring the Chinese space agency fit into the overall film, considering it essentially introduces a whole new plot arc two-thirds of the way into the story.

It has been pointed out that the scenes depicting events at the Mission Control Center (MCC) and other building at JSC were NOT actually filmed there- no government facilities look that nice!  One can only assume that in future depicted in the film, NASA was appropriated a great deal more funding than it receives currently!

0918nasamartion02

The Ares’ return to Martian orbit and the “convertible rocket” rescue sequence is simply incredible on a massive movie screen.  The dance of centripetal motion as the ad-hoc rendezvous unfolds is better seen than read- an advantage the movie has over the novel. Desperate Extra-Vehicular Excursions (EVAs) are a staple of contemporary science fiction films, but few have so earnestly walked through the physics necessary like The Martian does.

Perhaps because it contrasts so much with recent space-themed dramas Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian stands apart by retaining a levity between the characters and the story that never allows the audience to feel despair.  Even at its darkest moments, the movie never twists the knife even when it could- (The scene where a catastrophic decompression of Watney’s habitat module comes to mind).  A well executed incorporation of Commander Lewis’ disco music collection plays throughout the movie, conveying in some regards the humanity that might otherwise have been lost by succumbing to an overwrought orchestral score.

There is an important addition the movie that wasn’t in Weir’s novel.  The film’s coda sequence is perhaps one of the more touching portions of the whole story, and a welcome extra.  In talking to others who’ve read the book, many are struck by the abrupt ending.  The director wisely included one more chapter to Watney’s journey for this interpretation of the story. Purists may find fault in this, but I really do think it adds to this interpretation of Weir’s novel.  I won’t spoil it here, however.  You just need to stay in your seat a few moments longer when the credits begin to play.

So, is the film any good? My answer is YES. I’ll even say it’s worth the $12 to see it in 3D or on an IMAX screen, if you have the chance.  It’s not every day we are treated to a quality science fiction film with some real science in it. Treat yourself this week and go see The Martian.

By the way, I hope you enjoy disco music…

 

Opinion: It’s Not About Being First

mars-astronaut

I’m about to say something that seems at odds with the space community-

It’s not about being first.

 

There is a curious preoccupation with people associated with space exploration and human spaceflight.  That’s the idea of “being first”. First in space, first to orbit, first on the Moon.  First of a gender or ethnicity. First to do “X’.

The media feed off the notion of “first”.  It’s headline ready, easy to report, and doesn’t require any investigation.  Public attentions span being what it is, the notion of “first” fits easily into a sound-byte and sates the Nationalist agenda so many would-be leaders feel necessary to to trumpet.

That said, I don’t mean to imply there is no merit in the accomplishments of the pioneers.  Gagarin and Armstrong will forever be enshrined on the podium of human history.  Nothing can or should diminish the struggle of the minorities who overcome injustices to reach orbit.  Every first launch of a new type of spacecraft is reason for celebration.

But “being first” is is only an achievement if you’re in a race.  If the goal of human spaceflight is making a sustained, operational industry and exploration campaign, then we (as space advocates and popularizers) should be making an effort to applaud the second and third and fourth time something in space is accomplished.  Because it is only after something is repeated that it becomes part the normalcy we hope to achieve.

If we are to tell the story of space exploration, to promote it, to build it properly in the public consciousness, then we need to congratulate the seventeenth mission of any program as much as the first.  Because it wasn’t  Amundsen or Scott that made it possible to people to live and work in Antarctica, it was the establishment of permanent research stations like McMurdo.

There is sort of a trend happening with some aspiring public figures presumptuously announcing their intent to be “the first person on Mars”.  Perhaps this is fueled by the ability to garner attention through social media, or maybe it’s perpetuated by an element of journalism that thrives on bold proclamations.  It’s an unpopular opinion, but I think these premature announcements are , if not unrealistic, then at least distracting.  I admire the setting of goals and the efforts people will go to achieve them, any message celebrating the necessity of self-motivation.

The journey to Mars will be the summation of countless untold struggles, careers, studies, investigations, simulations, campaigns, but most important, the unified cooperation of many people working toward that goal.  It is not, nor should it ever, be the story of one individual. Rather than ride on the nebulous virtue of “being first”, I argue that those who wish to popularize attention to human spaceflight instead devote energy to what is necessary to make the journey possible at all.

Spaceflight may never be routine or operational as so many have hoped, but that is the goal we who promote it should be working to achieve. The story of human space exploration should’t be watered down to who was first to be there.  It must be more than a headline; it must the story of us all.

So here’s to the crew and mission support of the 17th Mission to Mars- you all the one’s who are going to make the future possible.

Exposition on Airlift Operations

U.S. Air Force C-47 "Skytrain" transports line up to load cargo during the Berlin Airlift, 1948

U.S. Air Force C-47 “Skytrain” transports line up to load cargo during the Berlin Airlift, 1948

“The actual operation of a successful airlift is about as glamorous as drops of water on stone. There’s no frenzy, no flap, just the inexorable processof getting the job done”    -Lt Gen William H. Tunner

Inspiration and New Horizons

Pluto.

Dwarf Planet.

A New Horizon.

Photo by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JH-APL)

Photo by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JH-APL)

In less than a week, a space probe will pass near enough to the object known as Pluto to photograph it clearly for the first time in human history.  On July 14th, the New Horizons space probe will will conduct a ‘flyby’ of Pluto and it’s moons before exiting our Solar System forever.

The photo above was taken July 5th, 2015, from a distance of approximately 9.2 to 7.8 million miles from the dwarf planet. It is remarkable in that this image clearly depicts the variations in color and materials on the planet’s surface, something that was imperceptible even to the Hubble Space Telescope, which had been used to image Pluto and its moons in preparation for this mission.

The New Horizons spacecraft is much like it’s legendary predecessor,  the Voyager and Mariner series probes. Unlike the contemporary Mars exploration craft, New Horizons will not enter in orbit around Pluto, but pass rapidly by, pointing it’s array of sensors at the target object in hopes of gathering as much data as possible in that short window of time.

Launched from Cape Canaveral in January of 2006, the spacecraft has traveled some 3 billion miles to reach it’s destination.  The timeline and flight path depicted below helps to illustrate the journey that took place over the last 9 years:

Mission-PathtoPluto-MissionTimeline-TenYears_sm

Unlike the other planets in our system, Pluto stands out, and not just for it’s diminutive mass and volume. Furthest of the most famous nine planets, Pluto was that last to be discovered (1930) and will now be the latest to be explored.  It’s very nature has eluded astronomers and planetary scientists, who’ve adopted numerous theories to its makeup and origin.

Using a variety of instruments developed by institutions from around the country, the New Horizons team will undoubtedly collect vast amounts of data that offer new solutions to the more confounding issues surrounding the nature of Pluto.

 nhspacecraft

For those of you who are avid space enthusiasts like myself, the controversy over Pluto and it’s place in the scientific nomenclature is not a new story.  For that reason, I won’t repeat it all here. For those who unfamiliar, I encourage you to sleuth the web and follow the dialogue of Dr. Neil deGrasse  Tyson, Dr. Mike Brown, Dr. Alan Stern and the debates centered around the International Astronomical Union.

The New Horizons mission is led by the same Dr. Stern mentioned above.  He has made acclaim for his research in a number of planetary science programs, but none so much as New Horizons. His public outreach to the general public has served a pulpit of sorts, a venue for his dissenting opinion regarding the “demotion” of Pluto from being labeled a “planet” to “dwarf planet”.

Terminology aside, Dr. Stern has helped to make New Horizons a publicly recognized name and the upcoming rendezvous an international media event.  In an age of short attentions spans and politically motivated media bylines, that is a commendable accomplishment. His story was recently the focus of an article in Air and Space magazine:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/one-man-lifelong-pursuit-pluto-real-180955303/?no-ist 

What that article of course will not tell you is how much of a influence Dr. Stern has been to me personally.  If one were to ask me who were some the people whom were the most significant influences in my life (topic for a future blog post?), Dr. Alan Stern would make that list.  Although I’m not a planetary scientist, or a member of the New Horizons research team, I consider Dr. Stern to be a most singular role model.  Before I left the active service, I was exploring every option I could find to continue flying professionally that I could find.  My extensive internet searches brought me to a webpage describing a program by which a planetary scientist was flying aboard one of NASA’s F/A-18 jets to observe small orbital bodies.  Obviously, I was hooked. Who was this man? And how did he get to do such cool things!?

Further inquiry brought me more details- lessons in tenacity, innovation, and determined sense of discovery. From his appointment to NASA, leading the Suborbital Applications Research Group, and training to be a suborbital astronaut, I have followed his endeavors closely.  Regardless your opinion of the Pluto designation debate, one has to acknowledge that’s not a shabby example to emulate.  His accomplishments have been an inspiration to me, another guidepost on my own path to achieving more.

I encourage you to red more about the New Horizons mission and follow the discoveries that will take place over the next 6 days: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/overview/index.html

 

Transitions: Higher Echelons

 

RapidGlobalMobility_banner

In June of 2014, the Air Force Reserve promoted me to the rank of Major.  Having replaced my captain’s bars with shiny new “oak leaves”, I closed one chapter of my career and looked toward the future, whatever it might be.

In many instances, the traditional pathway for military officers in the U.S. Armed Forces goes something like this: After training and commissioning, the most junior officers (ensigns and lieutenants) serve at the tactical level in combat or supporting units. These are the “Company Grade Officers).  Most will be promoted to captain (or lieutenant in the naval branches), assuming greater responsibility and leading enlisted troops.  After that, the path forward narrows.  Seasoned junior officers will have their records reviewed by a board of senior officers, and a percentage of those with the right experience and education will be selected to move upward in the “Field Grade Officer” (FGO) ranks.

Officer_Air_Force_Ranks_O-1_O-9

Field Grade Officers typically serve in positions of  greater authority, either supporting a commander as a staff officer and eventually as a commander themselves.  Each succeeding level of command promotes fewer officers to those ranks (Not everyone can be a General!).  Commanders in most cases preside over  a staff of officers who advise the leader on various aspects of the military institution: intelligence, operations, logistics, manpower, etc.  It is a traditional role of someone at the rank of major to serve on a staff.

As of this March, I’ve chosen to do just that.  I assumed the duties of an operations staff officer in the headquarters of the Eighteenth Air Force, at Scott Air Force Base.   The 18th Air Force is one the USAF’s 17 “Numbered Air Forces”, a level of command between the Wing (a base-level typically made up a number of groups and squadrons) and the higher echelon know as a Major Command or Combatant Command.  In the case of the 18th, it is commanded by a three-star general who is responsible for tasking the Air Force’s tanker and cargo aircraft fleets in peacetime and war. My small role in this headquarters is the initial planning of potential future operations- responding to world crises as they may arise.

080228-F-JZ511-916

 

For over a decade, I’ve been a flyer.  I’m aircrew, specifically a navigator (or Combat Systems Officer, to use the official term)  My responsibilities were to plan, brief, and fly airborne military missions.  My new position requires a new set of responsibilities.  Instead of leading from the cockpit, I will execute orders from a desk.  It’s an often lampooned aspect of the Air Force career- giving up one’s seat in the airplane for one behind a desk.  And for better or worse, is true. The higher one moves up the chain of command, the less likely they are to be leading troops in the field.  But as an officer, it is expected that I will take on greater responsibilities within the military structure.

I am a devout believer in the role of Airpower.  Throughout  human history, only a few technological advancements have truly changed the way conflicts are fought.  Armor. Gunpowder. The combustion engine. The airplane has fundamentally altered how war must be fought.  Where once oceans, mountains, and walls could hold an enemy at bay or restrict the movement of a nation’s forces,  we can now effect a conflict at anytime, anywhere in the battlespace through air and space.

But despite what some in the media (any many Air Force officers, to my continued angst) will say, airpower is not about bombing the enemy. Yes, that is one role of the Air Force.  But just as important are aerial reconnaissance, deterrence, and the transport of a military.   The U.S. Air Force maintains as one of it’s core capabilities the ability to transport, anything, anytime, anywhere.  Rapid Global Mobility may not be as sexy in the media as fighters and bombers or as well understood as the kinetic effects of bombs and missiles, but it is what makes all other aspects of the military enterprise possible.  In peace or war, the mobility air forces span the planet to conduct  missions on behalf of the United States.  I’m happy to say I’ll be there, behind the scenes, making it possible.

 

Flight Testing

1557502_10203069029426887_1397756512_n

Testing aerospace vehicles is one of the most demanding and hazardous occupations one can aspire to.  For as long as our species has attempted to mimic birds and achieve the ability to fly, people have been constructing- and test flying- devices by which to conquer the air.  Only in this last century has the concept of an ordered, certified discipline been established….. Aerospace engineering and flight testing.

In 2009, I was pulled aside one day in my squadron building by a fellow navigator who’d been asked to sit in on a meeting.  He recommended my name to our superior officer when a requirement was ordered for aircrew to participate in an upcoming project. Uninterested and assuming I knew more about it, I replaced him in future meetings regarding the project. The project was nothing glamorous- it was a fly-off between several contractors hoping to secure business with the Air Force reserve components to design, build, and install a datalink system on C-130 tactical transports (like the ones I’m currently flying onboard)

I took part in the fly-off, and made my recommendations to the service. Having flown on another air force aircraft equipped with datalinks (The Boeing E-3 Sentry “AWACS”), my participation in this phase of the project was fortuitous. Less than a year later, I was asked to return as part of the project by the leadership of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command Test Center, better known as it’s less cumbersome acronym “AATC”. This time, I had a larger role, consulting on the design on the device to flown, features of its software, and even participating in the flight testing.

The program, known as RTIC, which stands for “Real Time In the Cockpit”, was initiated to develop, test, and field a situational-awareness map display and datalink for C-130 aircraft.  From the beginning, the contractor team and my peers in the Air Force  sought to rapidly move the program from an idea to a flyable piece of hardware. The program began because of an urgent need to make C-130s a more effective airdrop platform during combat operations in Afghanistan.

The RTIC (Real-Time In the Cockpit) Tacview display on a C-130

The RTIC (Real-Time In the Cockpit) Tacview display on a C-130

My background isn’t in engineering, and I’m not an acquisitions officer (a career field in the Air Force which officers work with contractors to select new weapons systems). But for a brief moment, I was immersed in the world of aerospace engineering  and test flying. And I loved it.

As an aviator, it is impossible to avoid the stories of the daring exploits of test flying airplanes. From Doolittle’s first instrument flights, Yeager’s supersonic dash, Scott Crossfield, Milt Thompson, Don Mallick, and so more- every development in aviation has arisen from aerospace engineering and flight testing new aircraft.  Every knot of airspeed and every foot of altitude has been achieved because men and women diligently, precisely sought the solutions to make it possible.

I wasn’t educated as an engineer, nor am I a graduate of any of the esteemed test pilot schools. But for as long as I’ve been professionally involved in aviation, I have read every book, paper, journal or blog  about flight testing I could.  The process of moving an idea from concept to hardware is incredible to me. Learning what I can, my goal was to be able to better apply myself to the RTIC program – and any other test flying projects that may arise.

After the initial development phases were complete, the contractors delivered test articles of the avionics to the AATC in Tuscon, Arizona.  Long, thorough planning ensued- everyone participating met to determine the specific performance we hoped to achieve while testing the RTIC devices.  With the engineers, the flight crews and I planned a number of increasingly complex flight plans we intended to fly using RTIC on our C-130.

Testing the equipment added a new element to flying. With the engineers and representatives of the contractors aboard our plane to observe, my crew would take off and fly to the designated airspaces over the Arizona desert and put RTIC through the wringer.  Every feature was tested again and again, with the crew and engineers noting data points on test cards.  After each flight, lengthy debriefs helped the contractors learn how the avionics performed, and what needed to be revised before the next test flight. From high altitude range tests to low-level tactical routes through the mountains at night, we test flew every scenario we could. And it was an incredible feeling to see something that once existed only as a vague idea turn to reality before our eyes.

Its been four years since that initial meeting I went to, and after many more meetings, ground trials, software bugs, and logging over 30 hours of flight test time, I am proud to know that the avionics project I helped with is now being installed as standard equipment across the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard’s C-130H, C-130J, and C-17 fleets.  My experience is no way comparable to the amazing feats of airmanship attributed to great test pilots in history, but for me, it was worth it just to take part in a flight test project. And I suspect it won’t be my last.