The path to Mars goes through military test pilot school

Orion Exploration Flight Test

(Photo: NASA)

Early on the morning of December, 5 NASA launched the Orion rocket — the first American spacecraft designed for manned space exploration since the Saturn V rocket powered the Apollo missions to the moon.  According to NASA, the Orion spacecraft – unmanned for this first mission – orbited Earth twice, reaching an altitude of approximately 3,600 miles above Earth before landing in the Pacific Ocean.

“[This mission was] a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.  “The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”

And with the success of this mission astronauts once again think about going into space instead of hanging around Houston like a bunch of glorified academics.  The sense of purpose that evaporated with the last Shuttle flight is back, and in a big way.  We’re on our way to Mars!

You remember Mars, right?

total_recall_1990

(Image from the movie “Total Recall,” TriStar Pictures, 1990)

So do you want a chance to be among the first to walk on the Red Planet?  Then you need to be an astronaut.  And there are two surefire ways to be selected:  You can get a Ph.D. in astrophysics or something else equally boring and be selected by NASA as an astronaut mission specialist or you can join the military and go to flight school on the government’s dime and earn your pilot’s wings and be selected as an astronaut pilot.

But there’s more to it than just being a military pilot.  According to NASA’s website, candidates must have at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. The website also states that “flight test experience is highly desirable,” which undersells the requirement a little bit in that the fact is that the large majority of the pilots who have ever been selected to become NASA astronauts have been test pilot school graduates.

There are only three sanctioned military test pilot schools in the world:  U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, and Empire Test Pilot School at Boscombe Down in the U.K.

Here’s a video produced by the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School that gives an overview of the command:

Military pilots of various branches and nationalities attend each of these schools, but generally pilots prefer to stick with the school that fully focuses on their warfare specialty, for instance, flying off of aircraft carriers.

Test pilot school is about a year long and very rigorous both in the classroom and airborne.  The instruction is designed to teach students how to take the principles of science, math, and engineering into the cockpit and then back again in order that they can quickly and effectively analyze performance characteristics and assist in creating better designs if required.  At test pilot school you’ll learn how to take an airplane beyond its design limits without destroying it, and you’ll also learn how to write accurate reports

Like everything else cool and kick-ass, getting into test pilot school is very competitive.  Applicants need fleet experience, and they also need to have been graded at the top of their peer group every step of the way.  And it’s not a “hard” requirement, but because of the intensity of the syllabus most test pilots schools look for candidates with engineering degrees.

Classes convene twice a year and each class is only comprised of about 20 students.

For more on what being a test pilot is all about read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.  Unlike the movie based on the book, the first half of the book provides great insights into the history of what life is like in the world of military test and evaluation.

And here’s a video from World War II era that describes some spin recovery techniques . . . techniques developed by test pilots:

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