This question is kind of a continuation to Why does NASA have F/A-18s?

The accepted answer states that

"NASA uses them for pilot training and as chase planes for research aircraft."

So, why was F/A-18 chosen for the Space Shuttle, among ton of other options available (all aircraft with 2 seats)? Also, I would like to know why NASA got F/A-18 in the first place, out of the rest.

  • $\begingroup$ Because that's what NASA had at the time. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 16:44

2 Answers 2


Because it's what they had at the time and it's what the astronauts were flying. Only one of the NASA F/A18's is actually a two seater:

The aircraft were obtained from the U.S. Navy between 1984 and 1991. One has a two-seat cockpit while the others are single-seat aircraft. NASA research support aircraft are commonly called chase planes and fill the role of escort aircraft during research missions.

Their main purpose is to keep an eye out for external issues with the carrier. This podcast covers most of the nitty gritty details of that operation.

Chase pilots are in constant radio contact with research pilots and serve as an "extra set of eyes" to help maintain total flight safety during specific tests and maneuvers. They monitor certain events for the research pilot and are an important safety feature on all research missions.

As for why they have them:

NASA has a long history of using high performance jet trainers to keep the astronauts sharp. Since many of the older generation of shuttle pilots came out of the Navy or were test pilots, choosing former Navy aircraft is only logical. For much of the Apollo era as well as the shuttle era they actually used T-38's for training and keeping the astronauts current. NASA likes high performance, safe, simple jets for astronaut training as there are things you encounter actually flying that you just don't in the simulator.

"It's actually our most important training that we do as astronauts," said Terry Virts, who flew as the pilot of STS-130 aboard shuttle Endeavour. "It’s the one place where we're not in a simulator. It's real flying and if you make a mistake, you can get hurt or break something or run out of gas. There are a lot of things that happen real-world in a T-38 that don't happen in the simulator."

The actual shuttle trainer is a GII that flies with the gear down, full flaps, and thrust reversers to simulate the descent of the shuttle.

  • $\begingroup$ Back when the first Mercury astronauts joined NASA, nobody knew where the space program would take them. They took a major risk, and as part of the deal they would follow the same career progression as active-duty pilots, including modern jet aircraft and regular training to stay current in the cockpit. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 19:06

NASA has a lot of aircraft that it uses for all kinds of things. Many of those were military aircraft that have had their weapons and such removed. They're still very high performance aircraft, much better than anything civilian, and that has pretty obvious appeal to NASA. In the original post, the F-18's appear to be an escort for a photo op.

NASA has used a variety of aircraft as chase planes, including the F-5 and T-38. NASA has also done research using the F-15 and F-16.

I'd guess the use of the F-18 has something to do with maintaining a somewhat common fleet with the Navy, to ensure the future availability of parts and spares. But I can't say for sure.

  • $\begingroup$ I'd expect better performance than the military versions, too, with the weight of the weapons systems removed. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf quite likely those systems, if removed, were replaced with ballast to keep the balance of the aircraft intact. Or were replaced with mission appropriate equipment like extra cameras or sensors of course. Combat aircraft for the same reason tend to behave best when they have a full load of ammunition for their internal weapons, and for example the F/A-18 is from what I've heard a bit tail heavy when flying without it. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 9:06

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