Name: Troy Asher
Job Title: Research Test Pilot
Education: B.S., Astronautical Engineering, U.S. Air Force Academy; M.S., Mechanical Engineering, Fresno State University
NASA Center: Dryden Flight Research Center
Hometown: Winston, Ore.
Hobbies and Interests: Flying, Backpacking, Golf, Building/Modifying Personal Computers
Tell us about the career path that led you to your present job.
I was always interested in flying from an early age, but as I reached high school, I realized I would need a college scholarship to pursue professional flying; otherwise, I probably wouldn't be able to afford the education. I learned of the opportunities to develop a flying career through the Air Force and specifically by attending the Air Force Academy, so that's what I set my sights on. Getting accepted there required a very focused preparation in junior high and high school that included taking and succeeding in as many technical classes as I could (all levels of math, physics, computer science, etc.), as well as being involved in as many extracurricular activities as possible.
Consequently, high school was an extremely busy time for me between constant studying, four sports, student council, band and numerous clubs. But it paid off with eventual acceptance to the academy. It was somewhat of a repeat there: studying, sports, and military drills in preparation for a flying career and career as a professional officer in the Air Force. I always enjoyed technical subjects so a major in engineering was an easy choice. All went as planned, and I was fortunate to achieve my dream of flying and to complete an exciting 20-year flying career in the Air Force.
Along the way, my love of engineering and flying naturally led to interest in the test piloting business, which the Air Force also offered me through attendance at the Air Force's Test Pilot School. I spent the second half of my Air Force career testing airplanes and managing test programs. Somewhat coincidentally, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California is a tenant on Edwards Air Force Base where I was assigned for most of my flight test career, and NASA operations were always something I admired from the other side of the base. As I reached the end of my 20-year Air Force career, I still had flight testing in my blood, and fortunately enough my timing was good to apply for a job opening at Dryden. I was selected for a position here in 2008 and made a very smooth transition from Air Force service to my current position as a research test pilot.
What attracted you to your career? When did you know you wanted this career?
When I was very young (4 years old), my grandparents lived in a different state, and every summer or two my parents would take me to visit them. We flew across the country via the airlines, and I was quickly hooked on flying. I realized I wanted to become a pilot around fifth- or sixth-grade. A love of math and mechanical things, along with flying, was the recipe for becoming a test pilot.
What was the most interesting class that you have taken to prepare you for your career?
In high school it was Calculus I. I still remember being fascinated at how this "new" kind of math could solve all sorts of technical problems in the real world. Then in college it was probably aeronautical engineering, where I first learned what makes airplanes fly and how they are designed.
What do you think are the challenges for the future in your field?
Unmanned vehicles. Most of my generation grew up wanting to fly "inside" airplanes. With the ever expanding use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, our whole concept of flying is changing. All the concepts I learned for designing, testing and managing programs still apply to UAVs, but the flying part is completely different.
What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?
So far, commanding a Combined Test Force in the Air Force has been the highlight. Leading an organization with billions of dollars' worth of aircraft and hundreds of flight test professionals dedicated to supporting our nation in a time of war will be hard to match. However, since coming to work for NASA, I have experienced things I never experienced in the Air Force, such as climate research at the North and South poles in two different airplanes and pure scientific research from supersonic boom testing to infrared astronomy. NASA is a great place to work!
Tell us about the project that you are working on now.
In the G-III, we are doing airborne scientific research using a Synthetic Aperture Radar carried externally on the belly of our airplane. This radar system can detect extremely small changes in Earth's surface and is used for earthquake, volcano, glacier and other forms of environmental change research. We've used it to map all of the fault lines in California and the West Coast so scientists can better predict the occurrence and effects of earthquakes; we used it to measure the thickness and movement of glaciers at the North Pole; and we've even used it to search for archaeological ruins in Central America.
What specific responsibilities do you have that are related to G-III flight missions?
I am one of two pilots who fly the aircraft to the various areas of scientific research and maneuver it in such a way so the radar is in the exact position it needs to take precise measurements.
Would you like to "bust" any myth about engineering? What would you say?
It's not just for geeks! You can be cool and also be good at math.
What advice would you give to students interested in a career in your field?
Don't be afraid of math. No matter how frustrated you may become, realize we ALL had those same frustrations at one time or another, and if you persevere you will eventually get it. It never ceases to amaze me how many things you can do with a solid foundation in mathematics and how many real-world problems you can solve. A solid math foundation opens the door to other sciences, technology and engineering and will launch you in the right direction. Never let anyone tell you that you can't achieve something. You can reach any goal you set your mind to.
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