NASA Astronaut Shares Journey With West Point Cadets
by Jorge Garcia, U.S. Military Academy at West Point
March 15, 2023
If it has wings and flies, NASA Astronaut
Bob Hines is fascinated by it. This statement has been a maxim in
his mind for as long as he can remember, and it was a fascination
that would ultimately lead him to serve as a pilot in the U.S. Air
Force. However, Hines never thought his passion for flight would
take him out of this world.
“Being an astronaut was not on my
radar. I followed the space program. I loved it. I thought it was
amazing, but to me, those guys were superheroes,” Hines said. “It
was not something that was even considered as a career.”
Hines spoke about his career, the importance of staying true to
one’s goals and what it means to serve as a pilot and astronaut to
an audience of over 900 cadets at Thayer Hall during his evening
lecture hosted by the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering
on February 22, 2023 at the U.S. Military Academy.
NASA Astronaut Bob Hines spoke about his career, the importance of staying true to one’s goals and what it means to serve as a pilot and astronaut to an audience of over 900 cadets at Thayer Hall during his evening lecture hosted by the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering on February 22,
2023 at the U.S. Military Academy. (Image created by USA
Patriotism! from U.S. Army photos by Jorge Garcia, U.S. Military Academy at West Point.)
opportunity to fly is why I joined the Air Force, but It was also
innate for me to serve the country,” Hines said. “My dad was a West
Point graduate and instilled those values in me.”
lecture, Hines presented photos and video clips of his experience as
a NASA astronaut and shared stories about the impactful lessons he
learned throughout his storied journey as a pilot in the U.S. Air
Force and as a research pilot for NASA before he got selected for
the NASA Astronaut Candidate School.
embarking on this path, mentors like his father, grandparents, and
an airline pilot named Woody Menear avidly supported him during his
youth in various ways.
His grandfather was a sixth-grade
science teacher and a huge proponent and encourager. He would
routinely bring model rockets for Hines to build from scratch.
“He had a woodshop in his basement, and he would build little
wooden model airplanes for me, and he’d let me help,” Hines said.
“And so, each one of those little moments just fanned the flame a
little bit more.”
His grandmother would inadvertently add
fuel to the flame by trying to scare Hines out of becoming a pilot
when he was in elementary school.
“As grandmotherly types
will do, she worried about the risks of being a pilot, and my
grandparents had set up an opportunity for me to go fly with Woody
Menear who owned the World War II open-cockpit biplane,” Hines said.
“She later admitted that she was hoping to scare me out of becoming
a pilot, and it totally backfired.”
The two strapped on their
leather helmets, goggles and a scarf to complete the look. Then,
they took to the skies, where Menear performed barrel roll
maneuvers. From that moment on, Hines was indelibly hooked and
despite her worry, his grandmother gave in, knowing that becoming a
pilot was a dream Hines would never abandon.
Christmas, I got a gift certificate for three flying lessons from
her,” Hines said. “This was back before there was an age restriction
and I could go get a flying lesson. I never got a pilot’s license
out of it until I was much older.”
Hines would often visit
Menear, who was constantly tinkering away on a plane he was
modifying. He would buy old airplanes, fix them, hang on to them for
some time, sell them, and purchase other models.
near my grandparents in that Hershey, Harrisburg area in
Pennsylvania, and so whenever I would come and visit if we had an
opportunity, I’d go over to his house and see what he was working
on,” Hines said. “He is a mentor that to this day and is still
someone that I trust.”
And so, through his father’s example
of service, Menear’s passion for planes, and support from other
encouragers, Hines answered the call to serve his nation, becoming
the eye in the sky for military service members.
2005-07, Hines provided air support in a series of contingency
operations in the Middle East and Africa in support of Operations
Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
“The timeframe that I was
in Iraq, initially, things were pretty slow. They just had us flying
over pipelines to make sure that there weren’t people setting up
improvised explosive devices or bombs to blow them up. It was an
important job. We hardly had any unmanned vehicles to go do that
job, so the fighters (pilots) were doing that,” Hines said.
Hines carried out dual missions, providing air support between
Afghanistan and Iraq. He would later find himself in the Horn of
Africa performing missions that lasted 15 to 16 hours long.
Subsequently, tensions were picking up in South Korea. As a result,
an aircraft carrier was tasked to fly to Southeast Asia.
“This left a gap in capability in the Horn of Africa. We were the
deployed unit at the time, and so we got tasked to support. Now,
they didn’t move our squadron because we were still doing Iraq and
Afghanistan operations. So, from there, we would fly down the
Persian Gulf around the Arabian Peninsula, fly our mission over the
Horn of Africa, and then return (to our base or operations). Those
were some long missions,” Hines said.
After achieving his
lifelong dream of becoming a pilot, Hines left active duty in 2011.
Family was his primary focus at the time, however, he continued
serving in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
“I got a job
initially at Fort Worth. Eventually, they realized that a test pilot
is a pretty unusual thing. There weren’t any in the reserves. So,
they created a position for me,” Hines said. “... I was in there
doing 15 flight tests as a reservist and in the interim is when I
got the job with NASA as a research pilot.”
As a research
pilot at the Johnson Space Center, Hines flew multiple airplanes
while teaching astronauts how to fly the T-38.
instructor, Hines would train and qualify the astronaut corps. In
addition, Hines was tasked with flying several other airplane types.
He flew the WB-57, which NASA would use to conduct
Additionally, Hines also worked with
the Gulfstream business jets that were modified for various
scientific research missions.
“When I was there, we also had
the C-9 aircraft, which was an old military airplane, but they
modified it to do zero gravity flight—so parabolic flight,” Hines
said. “It’s also called the vomit comet because it makes you feel
Research pilots are also tasked with picking up
astronauts returning from space. The Gulfstream airplanes that
served NASA’s scientific research would get re-modified into a
“We would pick up the astronauts when they
would land on the Soyuz in Kazakhstan, we would meet them out there,
get them on board and bring them back home as quick as we could,”
In total, Hines has flown over 50 different
aircraft models and logged in approximately 4,000 hours of flight
“... and I did it in like an hour and a half at a
time,” Hines said laughingly. “Not like an airline pilot that gets
them in like eight or 10-hour chunks.”
However, Hines had
another passionate desire that had remained dormant since he was
flying strike eagles back in test pilot school. The desire to one
day become an astronaut spurred Hines in 2006 when he came across a
“Like I said, I considered those guys
superheroes, and it was not something that I ever really thought was
possible,” Hines said. “Right before I went on one of my first
deployments, my wife bought me Rick Husband’s biography which was
written by his wife.”
Husband was the commander of Space
Shuttle Columbia when it burned up on re-entry. As Hines read his
biography, he noticed similarities between Husband and himself.
Both men commissioned as pilots in the Air Force upon earning a
college degree, and after many reputable years of service, they
decided to take their passion for flight to the stars.
That was the first time I came across a book that humanized an
astronaut. I had also crossed paths with a couple of people who were
selected as astronauts—one of them was in (retired) Col. Shane
Kimbrough’s class,” Hines said. “That’s why I took the job at NASA.
I was interested in the space program and I thought the only way I
can even remotely touch the space program is to take a job like this
where I can at least help train some of the astronauts.”
Hines was in Test Pilot School during 2007-2008, NASA was selecting
astronauts. Hines submitted an application but did not get a phone
Then, sometime around 2012 and 2013, NASA went through
another selection process, Hines submitted his application, but the
phones remained silent.
“That was around the time (retired)
Col. Andrew Morgan got selected for the class and he ended up being
one of my students during the T-38 training,” Hines added. “In 2015,
I’d been working a few years at NASA flying with them and a few
folks in the astronaut corps just said, ‘hey, we’re getting ready to
open up applications again. You might want to consider throwing your
Hines applied but felt, due to his last two
attempts, that his effort would be met with silence and waiting for
the next opportunity when NASA was recruiting.
phone rang this time. Hines was lined up for an interview and unlike
any other position Hines held in the past, he would spend a week
with the people he was competing against to become an astronaut.
“It’s the most humbling experience in the world because you get
to meet all these people that have these amazing experiences and
these incredible backgrounds,” Hines explained. “I came out of my
first-round interview—I was like, ‘there is no way I’m getting this
job because these people are awesome.’”
However, after a year
and a half of waiting and wondering if he was good enough, the final
phone call rang and Hines got the news.
“They tell me, ‘we’d
like you to join the astronaut office,’” Hines said.
Consequently, after two years of learning skills like spacewalking,
operating the space station, controlling a robotic arm, learning
Russian, and Flying the T-38, to which Hines had down to a science,
he successfully completed the astronaut candidate training program.
And so, the moment of truth had finally arrived. Menear flew
a plane that took 15 years to build from his home in Pennsylvania to
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during the week of Hines’ first launch.
On April 27, 2022, Hines, along with the rest of the crew,
were prepared for launch aboard the Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9
The warm Florida air created a large cloudy mist
that coiled around the spacecraft as it stood nose upward, backlit
against the night sky as the engineers made their final preparations
“Freedom is good for launch,” a voice at
mission control said.
The heightened emotion was as palpable
as the mist snaking off the spacecraft as crewmembers, family and
friends shouted the remaining 10 seconds.
Godspeed. Let freedom ring ... ,” a voice from mission control
uttered as an explosion of fire and hot gas lifted the spacecraft
from the ground and carried the crew into the skies.
watched the man he would mentor as a boy take their passion for
flight beyond blue skies and white clouds and into the blackness of
the ethereal cosmos, where Hines successfully made it to the
International Space Station.
“Showing up on the Space Station
and coming through the hatch for the first time is a big moment that
I will always remember,” Hines said addressing the young cadet
hopefuls who have aspirations that may seem insurmountable.
“In my year there were 18,000 applicants—NASA picked 12. So, 17,988
people are not astronauts that applied,” Hines concluded. “Looking
around and realizing that everybody around you contributes to your
journey is key, so humility is an essential aspect. But then, you
have to learn how to enjoy that journey because you’re the only
person who gets to do it.”
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