Kelly Latimer, 54, is a test pilot for Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit -- two commercial space companies owned by British billionaire Richard Branson. For space tourism company Virgin Galactic, Latimer flies the giant, twin-fuselage aircraft known as WhiteKnightTwo, which carries a smaller spaceship at its belly to an altitude of up to 50,000 feet before the spaceship detaches and blasts off toward suborbital space. Latimer is also chief test pilot for Virgin Orbit, where she flies a modified 747 plane called Cosmic Girl. The plane carries a rocket under its left wing up to about 35,000 feet in the air, after which the rocket is released and falls for about four or five seconds before igniting and launching toward its intended orbit. Latimer is the only female test pilot out of a total of seven between the two companies.
Growing up in New Jersey, Latimer knew from an early age that she wanted to be an astronaut. In eighth grade, she decided she needed a plan to make that a reality. Latimer went to the library, pulled out an encyclopedia and looked up the term "astronaut." From there, she learned that all astronauts at the time had been military test pilots, and that to be a test pilot, one had to be a commissioned officer. After more research, she set her sights on attending the Air Force Academy.
She kept the entire application process a secret from her parents because she thought they wouldn't approve, even though her father had served in the U.S. Air Force.
"This is the late '70s, early '80s, the academies just got opened to women," Latimer said. "The first girls were just going through when I was applying ... and in my mind, I'm like, 'It's fine, I've got the women there now. It's going to be good. I can do it. It's not a problem.' But I just knew my parents would not see it that same way."
When Latimer finally told them, though, they were thrilled.
Latimer graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering, then headed to NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, where she completed a master's degree in aeronautics through George Washington University.
Once she finished her master's program, she reported for Air Force pilot training. One of the criteria that would strengthen her case on the road to astronaut selection was experience flying a high-performance jet. But at the time, women weren't allowed to fly combat aircraft, such as bombers. The only way women could get that high-performance jet experience was being a T-38 supersonic trainer jet instructor. After doing that for three years, she flew C-141 multi-engine cargo planes for a few years before she waspicked up for test pilot school and flew C-17 military transport planes for several years before becoming an instructor again.
She said her military and test pilot career was greatly aided by those who came before her.