From Earth to Space: The Evolution of Test Pilots to Astronauts
Kirk, John M., Jr.
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The word astronaut is derived from the Greek words astron, (meaning star) and nautes (meaning sailor). Literally they translate to, star sailor. This was the name given to the people chosen to represent the United States of America in its quest to enter outer space. It is during our century that the tools that mankind has been developing throughout its existence reached a level of technical sophistication that allowed humans to place themselves into the cosmos. However, these new tools were (and continue to be) unparallelled in their complexity. Thus, the role of the astronaut is more complicated than that of any previous mariner. The astronaut had to have inordinate skills, intelligence and physical stamina. Perhaps one of the most intensive searches for any type of human being was conducted by the United States in the late 1950's and early 60's for men fitting these qualifications. This paper will examine the roots of astronautics in aviation flight testing through the 1940's, 50's, and early 60's and its metamorphosis into the astronaut profession from the initial Mercury flight program all the way to the Space Shuttle. The landing of the Space Shuttle Columbia at Edwards Air Force Base on April 14, 1981, signaled the return of the astronauts to their roots in the test piloting of exotic and cutting edge research aircraft. The high degree of commonality between aviation and space technology was also obvious in the personnel that were chosen for the space program. They were all people who had piloted high performance aircraft. Their qualifications were based on the 1940's and early 1950's conviction that the final major step of American aviation would be to place an aircraft of some sort into outer space. Thus, it is very necessary to look at the history of test pilots in the united States in order to understand the backgrounds of the astronauts. This paper will look closely at the professionalism of these aeronautical researchers. The men who comprised the test pilots and astronauts were not ignorant risk takers who were attempting to accomplish feats of reckless bravado. Instead these were educated men who weighed the risks of their endeavors with the potential fruits of their success.