Astronaut in Training: One small step for man, one giant leap for Reserve Citizen Airman

Citizen Airman/Oct. 2017 -- Ever since he can remember, Lt. Col. Robert “Farmer” Hines Jr., 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron test pilot at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, has been fascinated by aviation and space. As a boy in 1981, Hines watched on television with millions of other Americans as NASA launched STS-1, the first orbital spaceflight of the space shuttle program.

“Ever since then, everything having to do with space has generated a sense of wonder in me,” Hines said. “However, as a kid, the idea of being an astronaut seemed so far-fetched that I didn’t even really consider it.”

In trying to be more realistic about his future, Hines decided he wanted to be a pilot. Little did he know that this career path would one day lead him to becoming an astronaut.

After high school, the Pennsylvania native decided, against the advice of his college counselors and in the face of a limited job market, to study aerospace engineering at Boston University.

“I loved all aspects of engineering,” he said. “I had learned about the test pilot career field and decided that would be the perfect way to combine my passions, so that became my pursuit.”

Upon graduating from college, Hines was accepted into the Air Force Officer Training School. He became a T-37 Tweet first assignment instructor pilot and started to work on a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. From there, Hines went on to fly the F-15E Strike Eagle before being accepted into Test Pilot School.

“At TPS, we had the opportunity to meet and talk to some of the astronauts who were coming through Edwards Air Force Base (California) for their space shuttle training missions,” he said. “That’s when the idea of becoming an astronaut started to seem like a real possibility because they had a similar background.”

Eager to take advantage of his opportunity, Hines first applied to NASA’s astronaut program in 2009, even before he completed TPS. He was not interviewed for the program. But that didn’t deter him. In 2013, he applied again, just after leaving the active-duty Air Force. But, once again, he was not interviewed.

Hines faced some steep competition. According to NASA’s website, thousands of people apply to the astronaut program, with a record high of about 8,000 applicants in 1978.

“I pretty much figured there was no chance as a civilian pilot,” he said.

After leaving active duty and joining the Air Force Reserve, Hines went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration for a short period of time before becoming a research pilot in the Aircraft Operations Division for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. As a research pilot, Hines flew several types of NASA aircraft and served as an instructor pilot for the astronaut corps.

“The space program was in a transition period that it hadn’t seen since the late 1970s,” he said. “The shuttle had just been retired, and there was a lull in activity.”

With the evolution of NASA’s space operations, the Aircraft Operations Division began enhancing its training program to prepare for the next phase of space flight focusing on space station operations and multi-vehicle operations with commercial partners.

“To be able to help reshape that small piece of astronaut training was really exciting to me, so I jumped at the chance,” Hines said. “The chance to be a part of the space program, even in a small way, was very exciting to me.”

While working for the AOD, Hines learned that several of the pilots who had been part of the division were selected to be in the astronaut program. This discovery gave him some renewed hope.

“So when the opportunity came around last year to submit an application, I put one in,” he said.

In total, more than 18,300 people submitted applications for the 2017 astronaut candidate class, which is an all-time record for NASA’s program. NASA ended up interviewing 120 of the applicants. From there, the organization selected 50 finalists, including Hines.

“The interview process itself consisted of lots of medical screening, psychological testing, face-to-face interviews, aptitude tests, group activities, individual tasks and an informal social,” he said. “About three weeks after the final week of interviews, the phone calls went out, and our fate was decided.”

On May 25, when NASA said it was going to notify by phone those who were selected for the astronaut program, Hines was at work flying when his co-workers gathered to share some news in person rather than by phone.

“Once I saw them on the flight line and they called me over, I had a pretty good idea, and one of the other pilots there pulled out his cellphone and started recording a video. Then I knew it was going to be good,” Hines said. “It was a really special moment having a lot of my friends and colleagues out there on the flight line for the job offer.”

Hines was one of only 12 applicants selected for the 2017 astronaut candidate class. In the midst of his excitement, he forgot to do one very important thing: accept the job offer.

“I just reacted. I was thrilled, but I never actually said yes,” he said. “So they had to confirm with me that I was saying yes and taking the job. It was so humbling and you’re going, ‘How can they pick me?’ You know there are so many people out there who didn’t get picked.”

Hines gives much of the credit for his success with both the Air Force Reserve and NASA to his wife, Kelli, and their three daughters. Kelli recalls being very anxious about waiting to hear whether or not her husband was selected for the new job.

“I went about the day’s business with our kids,” she said. “But it was definitely on my mind all day. I knew that waiting for this phone call was the hardest part of the whole interview process, which is about 16 months long. As soon as he found out that he had been selected he came home from work to tell me in person. I saw him pull up in front of our house and went out to meet him.”

Hines recalls that moment as well.

“She knew that was the day we were supposed to find out, so when she saw me pull up in front of the house, she slowly walked outside,” he said. “When I got out of the truck, I gave her a thumbs-up, and she ran up to me, jumped in my arms and gave me a big hug. I think she was more nervous about it than I was.”

Kelli said she is proud that her husband is a great role model for their three young children.

“It was really inspiring to see their dad who has always given 100 percent to everything he does to achieve this goal,” she said. “Our 2-year-old thinks it’s pretty cool. She calls her dad a ‘NASAnaut.’”

In pursuing his passion, Hines said his grandfather, who was a sixth-grade science teacher, helped fuel his interest in air and space as a young man.

“On vacation when I would go visit him, I would go with him to school,” he said. “So I was probably the only kid who ever went to school when I was on vacation.”

Growing up, Hines said he was fortunate that his family supported what he was so interested in at such an early age.

“As a kid, my parents and grandparents made countless sacrifices to give me the opportunities to pursue my passions,” he said. “Oftentimes, those sacrifices were in the form of miles driven to and from athletic events, money for camps or just time spent fanning the flames of my passion for all things aerospace. I’m quite sure my parents never envisioned me being in this position when they allowed me to go to space camp in sixth grade. However, that experience, among others, motivated me to continue pursuing my dreams.”

The desire to learn has served Hines well in both his Reserve and NASA careers. In fact, Hines had the opportunity to serve as a project pilot for NASA’s first-ever autopilot installed in a T-38 Talon.

“Myself and one engineer were responsible for everything, including requirements development, source selection, design, flight testing and production planning, as well as writing the updates to the flight manual, inflight checklist, maintenance manuals and engineering drawings,” he said. “We only have 20 airplanes to manage, but to be able to influence the acquisition process so directly is very rewarding.”

As a pilot for both the Reserve and NASA, Hines is able to balance his responsibilities within both organizations in part because of his understanding of the two entities, while at the same time maintaining his flying requirements across the multiple aircraft platforms he flies.

“NASA is a blend of Air Force and Navy standards,” Hines said. “We’re able to, usually, take the best of each service’s practices and meld them into our operations. One of the biggest differences here at NASA, as a research pilot, is that we all fly three or four different aircraft. At one point, I was flying the T-38, C-9 Zero Gravity airplane, WB-57 and the Gulfstream G-3. That is almost unheard of in the Air Force. In addition to that, I was flying the F-15E and F-15C on my Reserve weeks.”

After leaving active-duty due to family reasons, Hines said he really missed the opportunities the Air Force provided.

“It was the hardest decision I ever made because I was leaving while I was doing the best job I ever had,” he said. “I loved being a test pilot. However, my family had to come first.”

But as a Reservist, Hines is able to pursue both his NASA and Air Force careers, while at the same time enjoying a good family life.

“The ability to balance your civilian life along with continuing to serve and focusing on mission-essential requirements make the Air Force Reserve a great fit for me,” he said.

Hines’ 84th TES commander, Lt. Col. Michael “Hammer” Bess, said he has known his fellow pilot for several years and is fully aware of his capabilities.

“I flew with Lieutenant Colonel Hines during his initial F-15E training when my wife and I had the great pleasure to serve as his formal training unit instructors,” Bess said. “His selection may come as a surprise to many, but not us. He has always been an exceptional Airman, and the astronaut corps is lucky to have him.”

At the same time, Hines credits much of his success in being selected for the astronaut program to his experience in the Air Force.

“Without a doubt, I would not be here if it wasn’t for the opportunities given to me by the Air Force,” he said. “Along with my family, my Air Force experience is part of what shaped me as a leader. The importance of looking out for your people, even if it’s at your own expense, was really driven home by some superb leaders and mentors along the way. Plus, it’s where I learned what it means to be, not just a professional aviator, but a professional. Obviously, I have no way of knowing for sure, but I think many of the qualities that members of the (NASA) selection board were looking for were developed during my Air Force career.”

On June 7, Hines joined the stage with 11 other classmates at the Johnson Space Center for the public announcement of those selected. Vice President Mike Pence participated in the event and gave some remarks to welcome the nation’s next astronaut candidates.

“These are 12 men and women whose personal excellence and whose personal courage will carry our nation to even greater heights and discovery, and who I know will inspire our children and our grandchildren every bit as much as your forbearers have done so in this storied American program,” Pence said.

In August, Hines began his astronaut candidate training that will last the next two years. He said the training will cover many different areas including space station systems operations, space-walking, flight training, wilderness survival, medical and dental training, microbiology, and geology. He said he is also looking forward to getting to know his fellow candidates.

“I’m confident that our training will ensure we’re well-prepared for any curveballs that may be thrown at us,” he said. “It will be an incredibly exciting two years. And to have the opportunity to go through the training with such a great group of people is such an honor.”

With this newest group of 12, the total number of astronauts that NASA has selected since its first class in 1959 — the Mercury 7 — is 350.

For those with huge goals, Hines has some simple but important advice.

“Dream big, be selfless, work hard, take some risks,” he said.

And for those who want to join the next generation of astronauts, Hines has more practical words of wisdom.

“Do not build your life around being an astronaut because the numbers are so small,” he said. “Certainly, set the big goal and work toward the steps you need to achieve to be successful at that goal. However, find something you really enjoy doing, flying in my case, and pursue it to the best of your ability.

“Secondly, don’t be one-dimensional. Most of the astronauts I know weren’t necessarily at the top of their career field. However, they were well-rounded with other operational experiences that required skills that translate to space flight.”

For Hines, in addition to looking forward to the future of space exploration, it is also about remembering the past and those who came before him.

“It’s amazing to think about sharing in the same heritage as men like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Ed White, Gordon Fullerton, Dave Scott, John Young and Story Musgrave,” he said. “To be able to stand on their accomplishments and help push humanity further into space is a greater honor than I ever could have imagined.”