Cat Hines gets to feel pretty cool these days.
That’s because her father, Bob, is one of 12 people — from an initial field of more than 18,300 — to be named astronaut candidates for NASA’s space program.
“It’s kind of cool,” she said. “All my friends are asking about it, and if he’s gonna go to Mars. It’s pretty cool — I feel empowered.”
It’s taken some time for the reality of her dad’s selection to set in for Cat. She was born in Columbus to Bob and his wife, Kelli, while Bob was stationed at Columbus Air Force Base. In the years since, the family has moved around several times — from England to California and a little bit of everywhere in between — to follow Bob’s deployments with the U.S. Air Force.
Being part of a military family has made some unusual things usual for Cat. She said the magnitude of her father’s selection didn’t really hit her until Vice President Mike Pence was speaking at a June 7 candidate announcement ceremony at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
“When he got it, it didn’t feel real,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s actually happening.’ I didn’t even realize it until the vice president was up there making the speech.”
Bob, 42, said he’s still getting over the shock of being picked as an astronaut candidate himself.
“I think even now, it’s still disbelief,” he said. “There’s 18,000 applicants and the unique thing about the process is you get to know the other applicants. We live with the other applicants the entire time we’re here for the interview process.
“You recognize how amazing these people are and the experiences and backgrounds they have,” Hines added. “It’s very humbling to be selected. There’s not a person I can think of among that group of other people that wouldn’t make a great astronaut.”
Bob, a Lt. Col in the Air Force with extensive flying experience, is from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He’s currently a research pilot for the Johnson Space Center and has 18 years of service for the Air Force and Air Force Reserves.
Bob started pilot training in Dec. 1999 at Columbus Air Force Base. After finishing his training, he was named a First Assignment Instructor Pilot, and stayed at the base until Feb. 2004.
He met Kelli, who hails from Caledonia, while living in Columbus. They have three children, including Cat, 10-year-old Sarah, and 2-year old Julia.
Kelli was attending Mississippi University for Women at the time, and said she worked part-time at the base.
Last week’s announcement was surprising and exciting, she said. She added that it was a fitting step on a path they’ve been on for years. She knew he wanted to be a test pilot when they met, and she said he told her he hoped to one day be an astronaut.
“I didn’t take him seriously because I thought ‘Well, a lot of people want to be astronauts,'” she said. “Over the years, our paths kept lining up for him to do this. He did take a few detours — got out of the Air Force, took a job with the (Federal Aviation Administration). He took a job at NASA because it was a great opportunity. He’s taken a few choices that have taken us off the straight path, but our path kept lining up for it.
Kelli said Bob’s selection is a point of pride for the whole family. His parents live in Pennsylvania, and her parents still live in Caledonia.
“It has been very inspiring sharing life with a husband who does a really terrific job balancing life and his career,” she said. “He’s a very involved and awesome dad to our girls.”
Bob and the other 11 candidates will begin a two-year training program in August. The training will include preparation for space walks, learning the systems on the International Space Station, survival training, and even medical and dental training. Most of the training will happen in Houston, but the candidates will travel as well. He said they will visit partner agencies, including the Euro Space Agency in Germany, the Japanese Space Agency and Roscosmos in Russia.
Once the training is complete, Bob will receive technical duty assignments in NASA’s astronaut office while awaiting flight assignment.
Hines said his class has a special opportunity to fly a number of vehicles, as the successors to the space shuttle — which stopped flying in 2011 — are expected to be available for use in the next few years.
“We actually have the opportunity to fly on any or all of four vehicles, the space station being one of them,” Hines said. “To get there, we can use the Soyuz, which we’re currently doing with the Russians. Boeing and SpaceX will each have their vehicles, and Orion (a capsule to be mounted on a rocket) is going to start with deep space exploration. So all the development and testing that goes on with Orion and eventually getting to Mars — that’s on the table as well. It’s pretty unique timing for our class.”
“Starting in the next year or so, we’ll be launching from U.S. soil again, with SpaceX and Boeing and Orion,” he added.
For Bob, the selection as an astronaut candidate is the culmination of a lifelong love for aviation.
“There are pictures of me at two years old with my face pressed up against the window watching airplanes taxiing around,” he said.
“My dad was in the Army so we moved around a lot,” he added. “Shortly after we moved back to the United States, I got to watch on TV the launch of STS-1, which was the first space shuttle launch. That certainly amazed me, and had that sense of awe and wonder, and that inspired me to really want to pursue aviation.”
Now, with his selection, it will be Bob’s daughters who have the chance to watch him go up to space.
For Cat, that’s pretty cool.
“I’m really excited to see it,” she said.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.