NASA announced their newest astronaut candidates, Dec. 6, 2021. Among the 10 individuals selected was previous 71st Fighter Training Squadron T-38 Talon and 27th Fighter Squadron F-22 Raptor pilot, Maj. Nichole “Vapor” Ayers.
While she was a member of the 1st Fighter Wing, Ayers flew 450 hours as a T-38 pilot with the 71st FTS before flying the F-22 in the 27th FS. In total, Ayers flew more than 1,100 hours in the T-38 and the F-22.
Ayers was with her family when she got ‘the call.’
“It’s a twin thing,” Ayers explained, as she recalled her twin sister’s reaction when Ayers received her call from NASA, confirming her selection to the astronaut class of 2021. “I grabbed her arm and she knew right away.”
Ayers continued: “My 5-year-old niece heard me while I was on the phone telling my husband, and once we got back to my sister’s house, she ran inside and screamed, ‘Auntie’s going to be an astronaut!’ My nephews knew before I even walked in the door. I couldn’t imagine a better way for that to happen, with all my family there.”
During the announcement ceremony held at Johnson Space Center, Houston, Bill Nelson, NASA administrator and shuttle astronaut, spoke to the small group of pilots, engineers, scientists and doctors about their future as part of the Artemis generation.
“We unite people,” Nelson said. “To explore; to discover; to dream.”
So, how did Ayers go from ‘Fly. Fight. Win.’ to ‘Explore. Discover. Dream’? As a recipient of a master’s degree in computational and applied mathematics, she already met one of NASA’s new qualifications to hold a master’s degree in a STEM field. After meeting all the qualifications, she was hand-selected amongst 12,000 potential candidates to become one of only 10 individuals in the NASA astronaut class of 2021.
As she reminisced on her time at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, she recalled using the nearby NASA Langley Research Center as a visual point of reference during her flights.
“I flew over NASA Langley [Research Center] for about six years,” Ayers said. “So, it’s pretty incredible to be on the other side.”
Many people dream of becoming a fighter pilot, but the sky was never the limit for Ayers.
“When I was a little kid, the shuttle program was still running,” Ayers recalled. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to just be on the shuttle. I want to fly it!’”
Although NASA officially retired the shuttle program upon the return of Space Shuttle Atlantis, July 21, 2011, Ayers never stopped dreaming.
“Even though NASA’s mission changed, my goal never changed,” Ayers said. “I set my sights and worked really hard, and got to be on a bunch of really awesome teams.”
Ayers’ new team now dons a blue flight suit. However, that’s not the only thing that received a new color scheme. She’ll soon return to her roots in NASA’s white and blue T-38. Previously, her mission at the 71st FTS was to train pilots and provide professional adversary air support to enhance the 1st FW’s F-22 combat readiness. Her new T-38 mission will be in a jet trainer for NASA astronauts that also operates as a chase plane.
Although retrofitted for a different mission, the aircraft will still serve as similar territory for the prior Air Force instructor pilot. Not only will Ayers get to step back into a familiar seat, but she also looks forward to sharing her expertise and joy of the aircraft with her classmates.
“I can’t wait to share my love of flying the T-38 with my classmates and then get to know them as we fly and learn together,” Ayers exclaimed.
While she was at the 27th FS, Ayers flew more than 200 combat hours and led the Air Force’s historic first all-women combat formation in 2019. Her selection came as no surprise to some of her peers and leadership.
“Vapor’s astronaut program selection stands testament to her tireless dedication, humility and steadfast leadership while with the 1st FW,” said Lt. Col. Nick Sigler, 1st Operations Support Squadron commander. “I know I speak for all of ‘Raptor nation’ when I say how proud we are of her achievements. We all look forward to seeing where her journey takes her next.”
“I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today without the 1st FW teammates who stood next to me,” Ayers said. “To all the people at Langley — it’s been an amazing ride, and I can’t wait to continue that teamwork mentality with my fellow astronaut candidates.”
Ayers will continue her dedication to teamwork as she reports for duty at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in January to begin two years of training. Astronaut candidate training falls into five major categories: operating and maintaining the International Space Station’s complex systems, training for spacewalks, developing complex robotics skills, safely operating a T-38 training jet, and Russian language skills.
Ayers shared a piece of advice to any who wish to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be.
“Be passionate,” Ayers said. “Be passionate about your work, be a good team player and everything else will fall in line.”