Today I attended a lecture by Duane Ross and his protege, Anne Roemer. Duane has been the head of the astronaut selection process for 37 years and I had a few minutes to speak with them after the lecture was over.
Here is what I found out about becoming an astronaut. I won't discuss so much the published requirements, rather I'll be focusing more on the insider things.
There have been 257 NASA astronauts over the years and an applicant has a 0.6% chance of being selected. Of those non-pilots selected out of civilian life 38.9% had completed a Masters degree and 38.3% had a PhD. Of the pilots selected 52% had a Master's and 43% had only a Bachelor's. In total, nearly half of the astronauts selected had a Master's degree (45.2%). Basically its a myth that you need a PhD to stand a chance of being selected. If you have a non-technical bachelors degree that would otherwise disqualify you, a higher lever degree in a desired field outweighs that.
The process is divided up into 5 steps:
Once selected, candidates have several months to relocate to Houston. Becoming flight certified takes 2 further years of training at which point you qualify for 3 years mission specific training. The current group, which is half way though the interview and medical process, was told not to expect anything more than trips to the ISS (yet), and that that it would take about 8 years before their first flight.
- Review of basic qualifications.
- Candidates are given an initial rating of "qualified" or "highly qualified" and sorted into similar groups based on background and skill set. This is to prevent apples to oranges comparisons with fighter pilots being compared to teachers.
- Candidates are rated and ranked within their grouping.
- Interviews and medical checks are begun for a period of 5 weeks - everyday, all day. More on this later.
- Final selection is made.
The interviews are to answer the basic question of "would I want to go to space with this person?" They also aren't looking for hyper focused individuals. They want people who can do a little bit of everything. Things they consider are:
Furthermore your qualifications must be met by the time the application process closes, rather than by the time your application is reviewed (They are all reviewed by people, there is no automatic system that looks for key words.). If you're anticipating getting a pilot's license, new degree, or a certain number of years work experience, it must be finished by the application due date.
- Why do you want to be an astronaut? Is it a passion or just because you think it would be fun?
- Can you fix things? Can you fix a car or a computer?
- How well do you communicate?
- How well do you cope with others and respond to change?
- Would this person be a good representative of NASA?
- Does this candidate have a personality that is too intense?
- Are you a team player?
- Who are you as a person?
The interviews are conducted by a panel of astronauts who in turn make the recommendations of who should be selected. These recommendations are then approved by the JSC administrator and passed along to the NASA administrator for final approval.
Here's where it gets spicy. While the basic requirements for consideration have been loosened, the medical requirements have not. It was implied that they are nearly as stringent as they were for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. This is because they are planning for long duration flights and need people in utmost physical condition. They are much more difficult to pass than they were for Shuttle.
Things they examine include: physical measurements of just about everything, eye examinations, dental examinations, MRIs, stringent heart and cardiovascular checkups, and the VO2 max stress test. There is no age limit, and if you can pass you're good to go, but chances of passing do decrease with age. In the past they've selected people from ages 23 to 46. They also need to consider that they will get more use out of a younger astronaut.
However certain things will disqualify you immediately. Kidney stones are an instant no-go, even if you've only had one once.
Eyes however are a different story. If your vision is no worse than 20/400 and correctable to 20/20 you can be considered. If your vision is no worse than 20/800 and LASIK can put you into the "20/400 correctable to 20/20" category then you are also good go. (I don't want anyone running out and getting LASIK because of this without doing their own research FIRST. Your eyes are not my liability.). This assumes of course that there is nothing else wrong with them, and that you just simply need glasses because things are fuzzy to you. 2 years must have passed since the surgery to qualify.
As a side note, be aware that the effect on a person's eyes due to long duration spaceflight are very serious and don't always recover when you get back home.
There is much much much more to the medical side of things but Duane and Ann aren't involved in that. According to them its almost an entirely separate selection process. I have the contact information for the people who are involved on that side of things, but I'm not going to contact them until they are finished with the current group of Astronaut Candidates.
This brings me to my next point - Astronaut Candidates are not guaranteed a selection. What surprised me the most was that during your time as an AsCan if you cannot learn Russian to an "intermediate-low" fluency, you're disqualified. From experience I can tell you that Russian is not an easy language, so get started on that now if you're serious.
Lastly, the question was asked about how many applicants were internal to NASA. Surprisingly there were only a few hundred out of the 6200 total and 4500 qualified people who applied. Most of them came from the Mission Operations Directorate (mission control, where I work), Engineering, and the Space Life Sciences division.
I hope this helps, and once the current selection process if finished, I might be able to relay specific questions you all have. They do not know when the next selection process will be, but they anticipate it won't be soon, so if there is anything you need to work on, get started on it now while you have the time.
What would you do in your last week on Earth before embarking on an extended voyage to Mars? You would probably spend it taking care of last minute packing, studying up on your destination, eating good meals, and enjoying your remaining time with family and friends. That’s exactly what the crew of the 2013 HI-SEAS mission did during the past week, which I had privilege of sharing with them. Today they locked themselves away in a remote habitat on Mauna Loa to simulate a four-month stay on Mars.
As I’ve mentioned before, HI-SEAS stands for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. That mouthful just means that Hawaii offers an environment analogous to that found on Mars or the Moon. HI-SEAS is the brainchild of fellow Hawaii resident and FMARS+MDRS alumnus, Dr. Kim Binsted. On her 2007 FMARS mission in the Arctic, she became interested in questions surrounding the culinary and psychological aspects of locking a crew away for months at a time. Teaming up with Cornell University researcher Dr. Jean Hunter, they have carried out a food study with MDRS crews for the past five years. With the NASA-funded HI-SEAS mission, they are taking this to a new level of fidelity by rigorously testing two alternating food regimes of ready-to-eat packaged foods versus food the crew can cook from shelf-stable ingredients available in their habitat. You can learn all about the mission in this video:
It takes a team of people to get a project like this off the ground. From the construction crew who designed and built the habitat (which is a marvel of engineering) to the mission support volunteers who will be there every day to help the crew with their needs, at least 50 people are involved with the project in some fashion. In my role as Mission Support Manager, I coordinate the recruitment, scheduling, and organizing of the mission support team, who act as CAPCOMs on three shifts per day from their homes around the world. Having been a crewmember on similar analog missions to FMARS in 2009 and MDRS in 2010, I have a good idea what the crew is going through and am happy for the challenge of applying my past experience to this new mission.
So, let’s get back to my original question. Here is how the crew’s final week on “Earth” went:
As the SpaceX Dragon soared over the Earth again this week, I found myself pondering what its future human passengers will experience when they view our planet from such a vantage point. It is well-known that the Overview Effect profoundly affects many astronauts. Seeing the Earth from space tends to engender a deep sense of interconnectedness and purposefulness that transforms astronauts in fundamental ways. To date, only 534 people in the sum of human history have had this sobering psychosocial privilege, but that figure is poised to change dramatically in the coming years as commercial space companies take off. Once thousands of people have experienced the Overview Effect, what will the ripple effect be in society?
A video called "OVERVIEW" has been making waves on the internet for the past three months to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the famous "Blue Marble" photo. I was overcome with emotion the first time I saw the film, which I appreciate more with each viewing. If you've not yet made it into the 62 mile club, this 19-minute video is the next best thing. Watch at full screen and try to experience your own personal Overview Effect:
A year after I submitted my second astronaut application to NASA, it would seem my journey in the current selection has come to an end. Multiple reports have confirmed that NASA has already chosen and brought in all interviewees to Houston as of last week. I wish all applicants still in the running the best of luck going forward.
Earlier today, I spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden on All Things Considered about my astronaut ambitions and the current NASA astronaut selection. Bracketed by great soundbytes from Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story addressed the future of NASA and tackles how commercial space endeavors will usher in a new era of human space exploration. Other people interviewed in the 11-minute segment include astronauts John Grunsfeld and Michael López-Alegría. Listen here:
One of the things we talked about during the interview was how competitive it is to become an astronaut. Here's how the current selection is shaping up compared with the last one in 2008-2009:
The new video from Astronauts4Hire is now available. It showcases much of the commercial astronaut training I have been doing with the organization and explains how A4H provides educational, training, and research opportunities to support the growth of a commercial astronaut workforce. Watch it on YouTube or just click below:
Special thanks to Oceans Aloft and Rusty Rogers for filming and producing the video. A4H training partners Survival Systems USA, SIRIUS Astronaut Training, and the NASTAR Center generously allowed us to shoot the footage at their facilities. Additional footage comes from the parabolic flight campaign I helped carry out testing a biomedical monitoring system in microgravity with A4H research partner Vital Space.
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