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Out of This World

Trent Kingery ’99 trains astronauts for the challenges they’ll face in space.

Photograph courtesy of Trent Kingery ’99.

By Ed Williams

Trent Kingery ’99 has enjoyed a career that has taken him all over the world. Now he trains others to escape it.

Following a career as a pilot and project officer with the Marine Corps and a civilian engineer with the Army, Kingery now wears multiple hats in his work for NASA: research pilot, flight training instructor and chief of aviation safety. Based at Johnston Space Center in Houston, Texas, Kingery oversees 26 specialized aircraft, 5,000 flights per year and 42 astronauts.

He also trains astronauts on simulators and — more importantly — the supersonic T-38 jet that mimics the challenges of space flight.

Affectionately called “the white rocket,” the T-38 forces astronauts to endure conditions that can be seven times the force of gravity. Breathing is labored and hand movement is difficult. Some trainees have blacked out in flight. Pilots in this environment must concurrently monitor fuel, oxygen, navigation points and dozens of complicated systems. They must anticipate the unexpected while operating within protocols.

“Sometimes someone is taking a shortcut,” Kingery says. “I examine why.” A shortcut may result in a mishap, so Kingery stresses the importance of understanding and operating within the rules.

But that’s just part of the work Kingery has done for NASA: He has flown to Kazakhstan in Russia to retrieve U.S. astronauts after they rotated off the International Space Station. As a research pilot, he’s gathered data on Arctic fault lines, glacial packs and permafrost, working in conjunction with U.S. universities, testing global warming hypotheses. NASA recognized Kingery for that work in 2022 with the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence.

At age 50, I can take a T-38 out and go supersonic, doing loops with the astronauts. That’s pretty cool beans.

Meanwhile, Kingery still sounds like the student at NC State who studied aerospace engineering with dreams of the sort of career he has enjoyed. “At age 50, I can take a T-38 out and go supersonic, doing loops with the astronauts,” he says. “That’s pretty cool beans.” 

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