NASA announced its 10 new astronaut recruits out of a pool of more than 12,000 applicants, and a woman from Colorado made the cut.
On Monday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson introduced the new members of the 2021 Astronaut Candidate Class during an event in Houston.
“Today we welcome 10 new explorers, 10 members of the Artemis generation, NASA’s 2021 astronaut candidate class,” Nelson said. “Alone, each candidate has ‘the right stuff,’ but together they represent the creed of our country: E pluribus unum — out of many, one.”
Among the 10 selected members is Nichole "Vapor" Ayers, 32, of Divide.
"I'm the little kid that wanted to be an astronaut growing up," she told Denver7 on Tuesday morning. "I always had an affinity for the sky and for space."
She grew up in Colorado Springs and was always in awe when the Thunderbirds flew over her hometown. She said that inspired her to become a pilot.
"I knew, as a serious little kid, I was going to go to the Air Force Academy and wanted to try to get into pilot training and take that path to being an astronaut," she said.
At the academy, per tradition, every fighter pilot gets a callsign and hers is "Vapor." She said it stemmed from a very important lesson she learned about the environmental control system in F-22 Raptor fighter jets on hot and humid days.
"It can produce a little bit of steam, if you will, or vapor, which could be mistaken for smoke if you're not careful," she said. "So I learned a very valuable lesson on the differences between just a little bit of vapor from the environmental control system versus a potential for a dangerous situation. So I made a conservative choice and got out of the jet rather than taking that jet. It turned into a funny story."
She graduated from Woodland Park High School in Woodland Park and then the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and minor in Russian, according to NASA. She went on to earn her master’s degree in computational and applied mathematics from Rice University.
She was chosen out of an applicant pool of more than 12,000 other people. The moment she found out was one for the books.
Ayers said was on vacation with her twin sister and her three nieces. One of her sister's daughters, a 5-year-old, was in the backseat as they were driving.
"When the chief of the astronaut office called me, it was kind of a twin thing," Ayers said. "You know, I grabbed (my sister's) arm. And before I had even answered, she knew what had happened."
Her young niece picked up on the good news quickly. As soon as they arrived at her sister's house, Ayer's niece ran inside and yelled to the family that Ayers was going to be an astronaut.
"It's exciting that all these little kids are so excited, especially my family — to see what it's like to actually get to join that NASA astronaut candidate class," she said.
Ayers said she encourages children to find something they're passionate about, work hard at it every day, and find a team that you can be a part of that supports that dream.
"I think nothing substitutes hard work and teamwork," she said. "My teammates have been there supporting me throughout my whole journey. And everything else will kind of fall into place if you're willing to put in a little bit of hard work and be a team player. And just be passionate about whatever you want to do."
She's always been a part of a team — from having a twin sister to playing sports to becoming an experienced combat aviator.
She has more than 200 combat hours and more than 1,150 hours of total flight time in the T-38 and the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, NASA wrote about Ayers on its website. She is one of the few women currently flying the F-22 and in 2019, she led the first ever all-woman formation of the aircraft in combat.
At the time of her application to NASA, she was the assistant director of operations in the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, according to NASA.
The other nine candidates include:
- Marcos Berríos, of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico
- Christina Birch, of Gilbert, Arizona
- Deniz Burnham, of Wasilla, Alaska
- Luke Delaney, of Debary, Florida
- Andre Douglas, of Virginia
- Jack Hathaway, of Connecticut
- Anil Menon, of Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Christopher Williams, of Potomac, Maryland
- Jessica Wittner, of California
They will report for duty in January 2022 and will then undergo two years of initial astronaut training.
Ayers said they will learn how to fly together, about the space station system, some robotics, the Russian language, spacewalking and other complex systems.
She said her goal is to get to the moon and study how to live long-term in space. Those can then be stepping stones toward a visit to Mars, she said.