Armstrong test pilots, astronaut for Launch America share common bond

In 1998 when NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s research pilots Troy Asher, Jim Less and Tim Williams attended the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., with classmate and now astronaut Robert Behnken, they could not have foreseen the historic mark Behnken would one day make on spaceflight.

Behnken, or as they fondly call him “Dr. Bob,” was one of two astronauts on the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission to launch American astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade May 30. Behnken flew in two NASA space shuttle missions in the early 2000s, but this mission was his signature on history.

“Bob is a very humble guy, but in TPS he had a solution to every problem and always knew the answer,” Williams said. “We thought early on, wow, this guy is impressive.”

It is rare for a young engineer to come to TPS with a doctorate. Behnken did just that, after graduating with honors from the California Institute of Technology.

NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley (left) and Robert Behnken wave as they exit the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They were preparing for transport to Launch Complex 39A to launch on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission. (NASA photograph by Kim Shiflett)

“Everywhere he has gone he has impressed people,” Less said. “In Houston, they were so impressed that he became the chief of the astronaut office and then he got to fly this first-time mission.”

At TPS, Behnken graduated as a flight test engineer, while the others graduated as test pilots. They went on to work on groundbreaking Air Force test projects and then the four former classmates found themselves at NASA — three as test pilots, and one as an astronaut. It is common for many members in a TPS class to apply to become astronauts, and class 98B had Behnken, and astronaut Terry Virts make the cut. The school trains pilots and engineers, like astronaut Michael Collins, to be among those brave enough to fly new experimental planes and spacecraft.

“Flying is never routine and manned spaceflight is a lot like flight test,” Less said. “It is all about safety review and risk mitigation. This was the first manned mission of this spacecraft and they were conducting a flight test.”  

Williams also said TPS prepares pilots and engineers for this type of first flight scenario.

“This was the first flight of the Dragon vehicle with a person, which will be similar to the first flights for the X-57 and the X-59 aircraft,” Williams said. “We learned in TPS to think way ahead and create efficient and effective build up to flight test.”

NASA Armstrong pilots from left: Jim Less, Tim Williams and Troy Asher at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to watch their U.S. Air Force TPS classmate’s launch. May 27, 2020. (Courtesy photograph)

Asher added that flying a first flight scenario is one of the most sought-after career milestones a test pilot can complete. Asher, as Armstrong’s director for flight operations, and with a military background, has only flown a few from conception to flight in his career.

“Bob and Doug flew in some of the very last space shuttle missions, so they chose the two most qualified pilots you can find to kick off the next generation of spaceflight,” Asher said. “Who better to fly it than the two who have been intimately involved in the design from the beginning?”

The three remarked about what an honor it was to see their classmate kick off a new era of spaceflight, and the sense of national pride it brought to see NASA astronauts launch from U.S. soil again.

“He has been involved with this program for many years, and now we got to see the first flight,” Williams said. “When I saw the video of him getting strapped in, it raised goosebumps. It is such a privilege and very personal to see someone you know up there.”

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