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I always remember playing FSX as a kid and using the NASA F/A-18, and never thought much about it. And then I saw the picture of the Space Shuttle on top of the 747 being escorted by these planes.

Why does NASA have these fighter jets?
What are they usually used for? Military? Science? Advertising NASA?

Two NASA F-18's fly along side a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 747 carrying Endeavor

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    $\begingroup$ Who says they're designed for any sort of combat at all, instead of as, say, chase planes? $\endgroup$ – cpast Apr 20 '15 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ @cpast well, they are ex-Navy fighters, so they were obviously designed for combat :) ... they just have been demilitarized and are no longer capable. $\endgroup$ – egid Apr 20 '15 at 4:22
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    $\begingroup$ They are to defend us against aliens, simple. $\endgroup$ – el.pescado Apr 20 '15 at 8:03
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    $\begingroup$ @MSalters, it's probably also for public relations. I mean, they're giving the public a pretty fricking awesome show right now (in the picture). Had they chosen something like Citation Xs, it wouldn't shout 'Murica nearly as much as F-18s do. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Apr 20 '15 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @SpongeBob The use of a fighter isn't for PR. A Citation X is not nearly as good a chase plane as an F-18, because it's far less maneuverable. Chase planes fly in close formation with experimental aircraft, which is a role that military-type planes (they also use T-38s a bunch) are much better at than bizjets. $\endgroup$ – cpast Apr 20 '15 at 20:34
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NASA uses them for pilot training and as chase planes for research aircraft.

The two-seat F/A-18 support aircraft are normally used for photo or video chase. They are configured to transmit live video pictures from the air back to Dryden so engineers can visually monitor the mission as it is being flown. This feature greatly enhances flight safety.

There's an article from Armstrong Research Center with some more information, but that pretty much sums it up.

NASA also currently operates (and has operated) many other military aircraft types, either as chase planes or as subjects of research projects. Some examples off the top of my head include F-15s, F-16s, and of course their ubiquitous B-52s.

You say "obviously they are battle ready", but they are not – NASA aircraft are unarmed, and the ones in the photo certainly are carrying no missiles. They may have been fighters in a previous life, but the weaponry has been stripped. "Escort" doesn't mean "fighter escort" in this case!

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    $\begingroup$ In this case, escort probably mostly means chase - providing extra eyes on the shuttle and the carrier plane. They're there for support and in the event that there is an emergency. $\endgroup$ – egid Apr 20 '15 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ @SpongeBob "Escort" doesn't always mean "defend against an attacker." In this case, it means something more like "fly alongside to support if there's a problem." I'm pretty sure NASA's level of worry that someone will fly hostile aircraft to bring down their plane is just about zero, and if they were worried they'd call the air force; NASA is a civilian agency, and its only armed employees are its inspector general and its security guards. As for why fighters: F-18s are very agile planes that can easily fly alongside just about any other aircraft, very close to it, without crashing into it. $\endgroup$ – cpast Apr 20 '15 at 5:33
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    $\begingroup$ Also the use of these craft in particular may be due to NASA's extensive work during the development of the F-18 (especially wind tunnel testing). I suspect the acquisition may be related to that history. $\endgroup$ – BowlOfRed Apr 20 '15 at 6:30
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    $\begingroup$ @cpast Also, let's not forget that agility in an escort plane is important when flying alongside research aircraft -- you might need to bug out in a hurry if it goes instable! $\endgroup$ – Emily Apr 20 '15 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ They also use T-38s, which are the trainer version of the F-5. $\endgroup$ – GalacticCowboy Apr 20 '15 at 16:44
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They're mostly chase planes (source: NASA). NASA has four of them, two single-seat and two two-seaters. They provide more eyes on the plane for safety purposes (they are in communication with the pilot), and assist NASA's flight test missions. The two-seaters are also useful for photos and videos of flight tests so engineers have more info.

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