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News | Jan. 10, 2022

90th FS pilot selected for NASA’s 2021 astronaut candidate class

By Airman 1st Class Julia Lebens 673d Air Base Wing Public Affairs

From the last frontier to the final frontier, a 90th Fighter Squadron pilot’s lifelong dream has come true. 

“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little kid; I can’t even remember a time where I didn’t want to be an astronaut,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Nichole “Vapor” Ayers, a 90th FS F-22 Raptor pilot. “I grew up in the shuttle era; watching the shuttle missions is what led me to the U.S. Air Force Academy and being a pilot. I didn’t want to just be on the shuttle, I wanted to fly the shuttle.”

On Dec. 6, 2021, Ayers was selected for NASA’s 2021 astronaut candidate class - one of just ten out of more than 12,000 applicants.

Ayers’ impressive record doesn’t begin with her selection as an astronaut candidate. She led the Air Force’s historic first all-women combat formation in 2019, was the assistant director of operations in the 90th Fighter Squadron during the time of her selection, and has accumulated more than 200 combat hours and a combined total flight time of more than 1,150 hours between the F-22 and the T-38 Talon.

Ayer’s education was paramount in her selection as an astronaut candidate, something she said is helped by her pilot experience. Ayers holds a master’s degree in computational and applied mathematics, a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and a minor in Russian language. 

Now, as NASA astronaut candidates, Ayers and her nine fellow candidates will begin their two years of training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, this month. They will learn skills needed to operate and maintain the International Space Station, spacewalk, operate a T-38 training jet, work with robotics, and communicate with their Russian counterparts.

“[I look forward to] working with them on the International Space Station,” she said. “I think there’s a lot to learn from them, and it will be a cool dynamic because there will be very little military side to it, it's more just working together in space to conduct research, keep the ISS functional, and continue the NASA mission there – so I’m pretty excited about that part.”

There are many possibilities in her future, Ayers said.

“With the Artemis Program, NASA is now trying to return to the moon and learn how to do long-term space flight in order to eventually get to Mars and other places in the universe.” Ayers said. “I cannot wait to see where NASA goes next in terms of the advancement of human space flight.”

JBER’s challenging conditions have been an important part of her journey, Ayers said.

“I think my combat experience and my operational experience, specifically flying the F-22s, is going to help,” she said. “[I’m] able to think under pressure … and do things efficiently while in austere or extreme environments.”

While that austere environment hasn’t been the moon – yet – it has given her perspective on flying which helped for selection.

“Nothing beats flying in Alaska,” Ayers said. “I think the views are amazing, and I can’t wait for the views I get from the space station or potentially the moon as NASA moves forward with the Artemis Program. Alaska is unique because there are so few diverts that are close; I flew at Langley Air Force Base for a long time, where the divert airfields are 20, 30, 50 miles away. In Alaska you have to manage your fuel a lot more efficiently, and you also have to keep an eye on the ever-changing weather. I think just being in slightly more austere conditions really made me a better pilot, and hopefully makes me a better NASA astronaut candidate.”

Given her childhood dream of being an astronaut, Ayers described herself as “a serious little kid” who wanted to do well in school, be on teams, and eventually attend the Air Force Academy.

“This is kind of the thing I say to little kids all the time — find something you're passionate about, work really hard at it, and find a team to be on,” Ayers said. “Nothing replaces hard work and teamwork.”