On this Veterans Day, I found myself wondering: How many astronauts served in the US military?
America’s first astronauts were all active-duty military servicemen. Of the original Mercury Seven, three were Navy men (Shepard, Carpenter, and Schirra), three were from the US Air Force (Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton), and one (Glenn) was a Marine. The next group of astronauts included America’s first civilian astronaut (Neil Armstrong), although he was a former Naval aviator, a veteran of the Korean War.
Test pilot experience was a requirement for the first two groups of astronauts. Military pilot experience was allowed as a substitute for test pilot experience in the third group. It wasn’t until the fourth group of astronauts, “The Scientists,” selected in 1965, that NASA waived military pilot experience for astronauts—although astronauts in that group had to train to be pilots if they didn’t have flight experience.
The last class of astronauts selected, 2013’s “8-Balls,” has six active-duty military officers among the eight members of the class.
All told, 219 of the 330 former and current American astronauts served in the armed forces. All branches have been represented, but there have been more astronauts from the Navy and Air Force than the other branches.
It’s hard to beat the knowledge and experience gained in military service. Courage, commitment to public service, teamwork, maximum performance despite physical and emotional hardship, calm focus in the face of danger, comfort with complexity, attention to detail—traits that make a good serviceman or servicewoman are those which also make a good astronaut.
The crew of STS-107 included five active-duty US military astronauts and one active-duty Israeli military astronaut. Commander Rick Husband and Mission Specialist Mike Anderson flew for the US Air Force. Pilot Willie McCool and Mission Specialists Dave Brown and Laurel Clark had extensive experience with the US Navy. Ilan Ramon had flown combat missions with the Israeli Air Force, including the attack on Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor. All told, the five aviators on Columbia‘s crew (Husband, McCool, Brown, Anderson, and Ramon) had over 17,300 hours of military flight experience.
I’m the proud father of an active-duty Army officer with three deployments to Afghanistan under his belt, and my brother served for several years in Vietnam. I’m deeply humbled by the sacrifices undertaken by brave men and women in service of their country. I can never adequately express my gratitude to the members of our armed forces who help keep our world safe and our country free. And I offer a special “thank you” to those whose sense of service and courage took them into outer space for the betterment of mankind.