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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.)
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.)

“Essentially, the 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.”

During the 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.

However, before 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.

“Every 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.

“He lived 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.

Between 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.

As an 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 high-altitude research.

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 queasy.”

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 passenger carrier.

“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,” Hines said.

In total, Hines has flown over 50 different aircraft models and logged in approximately 4,000 hours of flight time.

“... 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 particular book.

“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.”

When Hines was in Test Pilot School during 2007-2008, NASA was selecting astronauts. Hines submitted an application but did not get a phone call.

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 name in.’”

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.

However, the 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 rocket.

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 before takeoff.

“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.

“Ignition! 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.

Menear 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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