On the rare instances when Col. Tyler N. “Nick” Hague
(left) returns from a day at
the office and walks through the door of his own home, the oldest of his two
boys occasionally asks, “Daddy, were you in space today?”
Not such a childish question when you consider the actual distance and travel
time when Hague finally rides into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket in
September of 2018.
It will only take him about 12 minutes to arrive in low-Earth orbit from
Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, only 249 miles above the planet’s surface.
In comparison, Hague traveled two miles farther when he was just a boy of 12; a
total of 251 miles from his home in Hoxie, Kansas, to Colorado Springs,
Colorado, where he first laid eyes on the place where his journey into space
would actually begin – the United States Air Force Academy.
“Growing up in western Kansas, staring up at the sky at night, seeing all those
stars, I’ve always wanted to do something involved with space,” said Hague. “I
couldn’t find a better program in terms of being able to study astronautical
engineering with building actual satellites and doing all that hands on work at
an undergraduate level. That just didn’t exist anywhere else at that time and so
that was the place I wanted to go.”
He graduated from the academy and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in
1998 and began a 20-year journey that would bring him to the International Space
Station to begin a six-month mission as flight engineer on ISS Expedition 57/58.
During this journey, Hague earned a masters degree in engineering from MIT,
worked on advanced spacecraft technologies at Kirtland Air Force Base, New
Mexico, flight tested at Edwards AFB, California, completed a five-month
deployment to Iraq to conduct experimental airborne reconnaissance in 2004,
returned to the Air Force Academy to teach astronautics, became an advisor for
the U.S. Senate on national defense and foreign policy, served as a
congressional appropriations liaison for United States Central Command at the
Pentagon and finally as deputy division chief for research and development at
the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization before being selected
for astronaut training in 2013.
“I applied the first time (to the astronaut training program) in 2003, so it
took 10 years and three applications in order to finally get selected,” said
Hague. “Twenty years ago could I look at what was going to lie before me and map
all of that out that would connect that point to this point? There are all these
different opportunities that I would have never been able to line up on my own,
but the service in the Air Force has made it possible.”
When he finally received his crew assignment, Hague quickly learned that being
an astronaut still means racking up a lot of miles on earth.
In this calendar year of mission training, Hague has logged five flights from
Houston to Star City, Russia, where he has spent 33 weeks training on the
Russian ISS modules – which make up half of the station – and the Soyuz launch
When combined with flights to the European Space Agency training facility in
Colon, Germany, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Tsukuba Space
Center north of Tokyo for eight more weeks of training on those agency’s modules
this year, Hague is closing on 100,000 miles of travel within the Earth’s
atmosphere to prepare for the relatively short commute to ISS.
Much of Hague’s time in Star City is spent training for that 12-minute trip
aboard Soyuz into space and the corresponding return trip six months later. A
training emphasis that fellow Air Force astronaut Col. Michael Hopkins explains
exists for a very good reason.
April 26, 2017 - NASA Astronaut Col. Tyler "Nick" Hague prepares
to perform rendezvous and robotic arm retrieval training in the
Systems Engineering Simulator, called "The Dome", at Johnson Space
Flight Center in Houston, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr., Airman Magazine)
“The majority of your training will be associated with the ride up and the ride
home. We have a two-year training flow and as much as a year of your time during
that two years will be spent over in Russia and your time in Russia the majority
of that time is being spent on the Soyuz vehicle,” said Hopkins, who has already
spent six months aboard ISS in 2013-2014. “But just like airplanes, the critical
phase of flight is take off and landing. That’s when if anything goes wrong,
when you don’t have that much time to deal with it. Aboard the ISS you usually
have days if not weeks to assess and correct a problem.”
The overseas travel has two-week breaks when Hague returns to Houston for
training on the US systems and for extravehicular activity (EVA), or spacewalks,
and an opportunity to sleep in his own bed for a change. This fierce training
and travel tempo is one of the drawbacks for astronauts, as well as their
spouses and children.
“I spend six weeks in Star City, and then come back for a couple weeks, and then
I’ll go back for six weeks,” said Hague. “There is a stress on the family, and
they miss out on the things that I could be doing with them at home, and on the
weekends. I’m TDY a lot, but my family’s making the same kinds of sacrifices
that I see service families making day in and day out. I think that, that’s
something that everybody that wears a uniform can appreciate.”
However, NASA has embarked on a new collaborative mission with commercial
partners SpaceX and Boeing to provide an alternative to Soyuz for manned trips
to and from the ISS. Cooperation in the development of new low-orbit launch
vehicles by these commercial companies based in the United States will provide
the Air Force with more orbital lift options and will also bring astronauts
closer to home for training and for longer periods of time.
“It’s important for us to be able to return launch to Florida. You know, from a
crew perspective, I can tell you that it makes it a whole lot easier on the
crew, because you stop having to send people (to Star City, Russia) for six
weeks at a shot over, and over, and over again and reduce the strain on the
families,” said Hague.
“It’s also important from a redundancy perspective. Right now it’s Soyuz only,
so if something happened with the Soyuz, now we’re looking for a way to get
astronauts up there. It’ll provide us that flexibility to continue to fly Soyuz,
and fly out of Florida and for the Russians to do the same.”
Once again the Air Force is a lynchpin in the development of a barrier breaking
technology as astronaut Col. Robert Behnken is one of four test pilots for the
commercial spacecraft and Hopkins is part of the team developing communications,
displays and procedures for the new launch vehicles.
April 27, 2017 - NASA Astronaut Col. Michael S. Hopkins, a
veteran of Expedition 37/38 aboard the International Space Station
(ISS) in 2013-2014, is currently part of the team at Johnson Space
Center in Houston, Tex., that is designing launch, docking and
reentry procedures and communications for the Boeing CST-100
Starliner, one of the commercial launch vehicles NASA will begin
testing next year for use to transport six-astronaut crews to and
from the ISS. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr., Airman Magazine)
“Currently, my major focus is on one of those commercial crewed vehicles. It’s
the Boeing CST-100 Starliner. I’m working as one of the CAPCOMs for that
program; the communicator who would be talking to the astronauts in the vehicle
as they’re going uphill and docking to the station,” said Hopkins. “There’s a
lot of new material that we have to learn and figure out what the launch day is
going to look like and what docking is going to look like and what the landing
is going to look like.”
After one unmanned test of both the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9
rocket and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, two-astronaut crews will fly subsequent
tests before operational flights will begin taking six astronauts per flight to
the ISS. Astronauts, such as Behnken, will not only flight-test the vehicles,
but they are deeply involved in the design and development phase of the vehicles
that is currently underway.
“The training for these missions is really wrapped into the development process.
So we’re learning the vehicles as they’re designed and built, “ said Behnken,
veteran of two of the Space Shuttle missions that built the ISS and the only
active-duty member of the test crews. “(The test crews are) Air Force and Navy
test pilot school graduates, and we’re really participating in a development
process so that we can bring our space flight experience to the designs as they
come to the table… that should wrap up around mid-2018 for both vehicles, and
hopefully if the schedules hold, that’s when we’ll fly in space.”
These astronauts are the most recent in a continuing legacy of Air Force support
of NASA and space exploration since the space program’s inception.
A total of eighty-five Air Force astronauts have traveled into space, from three
of the first NASA astronauts, the Mercury Seven, Lt. Col. Gus Grissom, Col.
Gordon Cooper and Major Deke Slayton, to two of the crew of Apollo 11, the first
humans to set foot on the Moon, Col. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Maj. Gen. Michael
Collins to Col. Jack Fischer, flight engineer for ISS Expedition 51/52,
currently traveling at over 17,000 miles per hour (5 miles per second) for
25,000 miles on each of his 15.5 orbits per day aboard ISS.
Still more, like Hague, are in training for upcoming flights, and numerous Air
Force personnel support both manned and unmanned NASA missions.
“The Air Force is supporting the mission on a daily basis,” said Hague. “It’s
flight docs assigned here, search and rescue crews that are helping bring us
home, we’ve got the range support for launching cargo and soon we’re going to be
launching Americans back out of Florida. There’s also guys that are looking at
all the radar coming back down from space trying to track space debris and they
help us prevent things from flying into the Space Station, so they’re protecting
us on a daily basis.”
April 27, 2017 - NASA astronaut Col. Tyler N. "Nick" Hague waits
to be lowered into the pool containing a mockup of the International
Space Station at the Johnson Space Flight Center's Neutral Buoyancy
Laboratory for Extravehicular Activity training in Houston, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr., Airman Magazine)
Of course, participation in the civilian space program reaps great benefits for
the Air Force from supporting space exploration and research.
“The Air Force gets access to space, and so from an expense standpoint, NASA’s
already paid for that, now all you have to do is develop your experiment, and
then we can get it onboard,” said Hopkins. “Then you get the astronaut’s time.
We don’t go and charge the Air Force for the time of the astronaut on board
that’s executing their experiment. You’re getting access to a microgravity
laboratory, right? It’s a very unique laboratory, in fact the only one in
The partnership between the Air Force and NASA is a collaborative research
relationship that fills gaps in each other’s research and facilities.
According to Dr. Morley Stone, chief technology officer of the Air Force
Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, the Air Force
benefits from NASA’s experience with human performance in microgravity
environments, as NASA benefits from the Air Force’s research in the macrogravity
realm of high sustained G-forces.
Both are participating in research on hypersonics, autonomous systems,
artificial intelligence and materials that can survive extreme environments.
“I would say certainly NASA is up near the top, as probably our most important
federal partnership,” said Stone.
Life aboard the ISS is tightly scheduled to accommodate the necessary daily
planning conference with ground controllers, two hours of exercise necessary to
maintain the astronauts’ bodies in a microgravity environment, performing EVA
for scheduled station maintenance or repairs and conducting the experiments sent
to ISS by researchers on the ground, military and civilian.
However, on occasion, there are small gaps where astronauts can indulge the kid
inside that still looks upon the cosmos in wonder.
Behnken had such an opportunity on his second STS mission to install components
on the ISS. During an EVA to install the cupola observation window for Earth
observation and photography, Behnken and a crewmate exerted themselves to the
point that exhaled carbon dioxide was building up inside their suits faster than
the air scrubbers could eliminate it.
“My partner and I had both worked harder than the suit could keep up with, and
we got the chance to take about a 15-minute break,” said Behnken.
“They told us to “Attach yourself to the space station, and sit there, and look
around. And don’t breathe too hard, because we’re trying to catch up with the
scrubbing that’s on the suit.
“When you’re outside on a spacewalk, you get a panorama view that just can’t be
captured with any of the windows … You get to see sunrises, and sunset, and that
angular view of the atmosphere with thunderstorms lightning themselves up,” said
“It’s of the whole majesty of the Earth, which is just awesome.”
By U.S. Air Force J.M. Eddins Jr., Airman Magazine
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