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Aiming higher: Airmen contribute to human spaceflight from Apollo to tomorrow

Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks near the lunar module during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity.

Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks near the lunar module during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (NASA file photo)


What’s the first thought or word that comes to your mind when you hear Apollo 11? Is it NASA, moon landing, Armstrong or Aldrin?

While all of those are perfectly logical and correct answers, there’s one response that’s equally as valid, though not often given: U.S. Air Force or Airmen.

From Air Force Col. Nick Hague, who is currently aboard the International Space Station, all the way back to Buzz Aldrin, who was a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot in the Korean War, Airmen are among the more than 60% of astronauts who came from the uniformed service.

However, the Air Force’s long, multifaceted relationship with NASA’s human spaceflight program extends well beyond simply serving as a source of Astronauts.

North American X-15

The X-15 hypersonic research program was a joint effort between the Air Force and NASA at Edwards Air Force Base, California, that resulted in information that set the foundations to the success of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and other space shuttle programs.

In addition to providing five of the 12 pilots who flew the X-15, the Air Force contributed two modified B-52 Stratofortress bomber aircraft used as launch platforms for the X-15. These B-52s, known as “The High and Mighty One” and “The Challenger” were joined in supporting the program by C-130 Hercules and C-47 Skytrain cargo aircraft as well as F-100 Super Sabre, F-104 Starfighter and F-5 Freedom Fighter chase planes.

Hundreds of Airmen also directly contributed to the X-15 mission in many ways to include aircraft maintenance, airfield operations, life support systems and other flight and personnel support functions. In addition, the fastest recorded flight of the X-15 – Mach 6.7, or 4,519 mph – was accomplished by Air Force Col. William Knight.

Pulling Apollo Together

Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, former director of the Air Force’s LGM-30 Minuteman missile program, played a significant role in the Apollo program as its deputy director in NASA’s Office of Manned Spaceflight, where he led a government-industry team of more than 400,000 people through the Apollo 11 mission.

Dr. Wernher Von Braun, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center director, honored Phillips, asserting that Phillips pulled together the various aspects of the Apollo program to make it happen.

After Apollo 11’s successful moon landing, Phillips returned to Air Force active duty in 1969. The Smithsonian Institution later awarded him the Langley Medal for his work on the Apollo 11 mission, which placed him in the prestigious company of the Wright Brothers and rocket pioneer Robert Goddard.

The Cape

Some of the most historic – and ongoing – contributions of Airmen to human spaceflight are at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, which is operated by the 45th Space Wing in Patrick AFB, Florida.

Not only did CCAFS host all the Mercury and Gemini launches that led to the Apollo program, it also hosted the Apollo 7 launch, which was the first manned Apollo mission after the Apollo 1 fire that tragically killed three Astronauts: command pilot Air Force Lt. Col. Virgil I. Grissom, senior pilot Air Force Lt. Col. Ed White and pilot U.S. Navy Lt. Cdr. Roger B. Chaffee.

Airmen at CCAFS also provided direct mission and base support to NASA, including housing Dr. Von Braun and his team as they developed the Saturn V launch vehicle that sent the first humans to the moon.

Shooting for the moon again

“The Air Force has been a driving force and leader in space since our earliest days in orbit,” Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan said. “Today, space is more central to our society and military than ever before, and we are committed to sustaining American leadership in this critical domain. As we aim again for the moon and launch a new age of human spaceflight, we are proud to continue our vital support to NASA and our commercial partners on this momentous endeavor.”

Airmen from multiple Major Commands, bases and specialties are still directly supporting human spaceflight, including the Commercial Crew program that, before the end of this year, plans to launch the first astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011 when the Space Shuttle program ended. From the U.S. Air Force Survival School at Fairchild AFB, Washington, the 920th Rescue Wing and the 45th Operations Group, Detachment 3, at Patrick AFB to Air Force Space Command Airmen located all over the globe operating various aspects of the Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network, Airmen continue their proud support for human spaceflight programs.


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