As phase one of this cycle's interview period draws to a close, I thought I'd share my experience with the group. Each person going through the interview experiences it somewhat differently, so while you'll probably note many similarities with other reports from this year perhaps you'll pick up on differences that will help you should you be called down to Houston in some future year. (For another person's interview report with pictures from a different group see the links in a previous post on this blog.)
First, let me tell you a little about who I am and thus explain the filter through which I viewed the week in Houston. I'm currently a professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college where I spend half my time sharing my excitement about science in the classroom and then the other half doing it (radio astronomy and remote sensing of the atmosphere from Antarctic and space-based telescopes). Before becoming a professor, I spent about 2.5 years and two winter-overs as a scientist at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where I cross-trained as a medic, firefighter, and communications operator. Throughout my life, I've always been intrigued by how things work (whether they be machines, people, or organizations), so I asked lots of questions during my time in Houston to understand the "whys" behind the interview activities and the job of astronaut itself.
The interview process starts with a phone call from the Astronaut Selection Office a week or two before your scheduled interview date in order to set up airplane tickets, etc. While this might seem like short notice, they have learned over the decades to do it this way when they can so that interviewees don't come to Houston over-prepared and thus hide their true selves. This theme of being open and honest about both strengths and weaknesses reappeared multiple times over the time I was in Houston. Understandably, it is one of the things they are looking for when searching for applicants in whom other astronauts will be expected to trust their lives.
Arriving on Sunday night, the first order of business was to meet up with the other 9 interviewees in my group and head out to dinner to get to know each other. Since teamwork is a trait emphasized in the selection process, this head-start in team building served all of us well, but of course we were also curious to find out more about our fellow interviewees! My interview group consisted of 6 military officers (working in a range of positions from test pilots, DARPA, and the Pentagon), 2 scientists (a cancer researcher and me), 1 middle school educator, and one NASA employee who works in the astronaut office. Our backgrounds were widely varied, but our enthusiasm for the week ahead was the same. Over dinner we learned how to communicate across the divides in our backgrounds, something that would come in handy for all of us as we talked with astronauts from a variety of backgrounds themselves (military/civilian/etc) in the coming days.
Early Monday morning the bus came to pick us up for access badges and the first stop on our intricately interleaved schedules: the orientation (each person's unique schedule grid is a work of art that ensures that we all make through the various steps that I'll describe below).
By the end of my three days I knew that this was a place where I would fit in and enjoy working, and I can only hope they got that impression about me too. Now all of the ~110 interviewees are back to waiting for the phone to ring to see if we'll make the next cut to 40. For those who do, there will be a week of in-depth medical testing (so in-depth that about 50% of people who go through the medical are expected to fail for one reason or another) during February or early March.
- Orientation (all 10 of us at once)
Monday morning started off with a welcome to Houston by the selection office, the chair, and deputy chair of the astronaut selection board (astronauts Peggy Whitson and Steven Lindsey). In addition to describing what it is like to be astronaut (lots of training, travel, administrative work, with only just a little bit of flying in space), we were also told about the hazards (about a 1 in 62 chance of meeting an early demise). All of us were familiar with the hazards of the job going into the week, but it was still heart-rending to hear someone comment from personal experience that the hardest part about being an astronaut is watching your friends die.
- Tours (groups of 5)
Interspersed with the various tests, we all had opportunities to go on tours of some of the more interesting parts of JSC. We found ourselves watching the activity in the Mission Control Center and then on another tour crawling through the mockups of the International Space Station and Space Shuttle. At every step of the way people went out of their way to explain what they were doing and to share their excitement about their part in the grand endeavor of human spaceflight.
- Anthropometric Measurements (individually)
For two hours, each of us stripped down to a pair of spandex briefs (plus sports bra for the female members of our group) and had every conceivable external measurement of our bodies taken. Three technicians used a giant pair of calipers to measure a wide range of points (the length of our arm, the width of our head, our sitting height, standing height, etc.) Then, as if that were not enough, we were coated in strategically placed silver reflective balls and placed into a chamber with a laser measuring system. Upon exiting the chamber we saw ourselves in 3D glory on a computer monitor enabling the measurement of any other dimensions that might come in handy later. Finally, to finish off the external measurements we sat down in a model of a Soyuz capsule chair to see if we would fit! The critical measurement here is your torso length, since your legs are folded up with your knees in your chest. Alas, the folks taking the measurements only write down the numbers and don't tell you whether or not you have passed the test, so perhaps I fit and perhaps I don't. :-)
Associated with the external measurements is a machine designed to measure the strength of your elbow, knee, and shoulder joints. What they are looking for here are discontinuities in your joints that might signal past joint injuries. In practice, you get strapped into the machine to isolate one joint at a time and then push as hard as you can to make the machine move through the full range of motion for that one joint.
- Robotics Assessment (individually)
To determine our 3D reasoning skills, situational awareness, and ability to multi-task, we each tried our hand at a robotics simulation. Unfortunately this aspect of the interview is covered by a confidentiality agreement, so I can't tell you anything more ... but it sure was fun!
- Written Psychological Exams (all of us)
Also covered by a confidentiality agreement was the 5 hours worth of written psych testing, but just imagine page after page of bubble sheets with the answers to 1000's of short questions meant to assess your sociability, teamwork, etc.
- Medical questionnaire review (individually)
Before heading down to Houston for the week we were mailed 70 pages worth of yes/no medical questions to answer. Things like have you ever had: chickenpox, measles, mumps, the black death, ... Any question that merited a "yes" then got a few sentences of explanation on the form itself and a few minutes worth of inquiry from the doctor during the in-person review during the week. After talking with the doctor I was told that there was nothing on my form that would prevent me from continuing to the next stage (a week long interview with full-body CAT scans and more to be held in the coming months). Hooray!
- (optional) Physical work-out with the Astronaut Strength and Conditioning Team (all 10 of us)
Being with a mostly military group, I quickly learned that the military definition of the word "optional" is "required." Since we had heard from others how difficult this work-out was, there was certainly a strong temptation to make this "optional," but giving up before you even begin is certainly not considered a valid option!
Not being the most fit person in the world, this activity was probably the hardest part of the interview process for me. But, since the qualities being tested during the workout are teamwork and a willingness to give it your all, rather than your actual fitness level, I gave it everything I had. Over the course of an hour we worked in small groups to complete a "cross-fit" course where we rotated amongst stations to complete a variety of physical tasks in a limited period of time. Some of these tasks would be familiar to anyone, largest number of sit-ups in a 4-minute period, while others would be a bit more bizarre ... moving from a squatting position to throw a weight ball up against a wall and then catching it again. My group of three consisted of myself, another civilian and the chair of the selection board (who was far fitter than the rest of us). :-) By the end of the course my heart rate was higher than I've ever felt before, but I knew that I had given it my all (and then some!).
- The Interview (individually)
The central part of this whole process is a one-hour interview with the astronaut selection board. To introduce ourselves to the ~12 people on the board we were asked to write down 3-5 reasons why we wanted to be an astronaut. Then before entering the room, these reasons were read aloud (some other interviewees heard laughter coming through the door at this stage). The door then opens and we are brought into the room and seated in the hot seat (the room has a table in the shape of a T, and the interviewee sits right in the inside corner of the T).
The classic opening question is "Tell us about yourself starting with high school". This began a wide ranging discussion of science, Antarctica, international relations, and more driven by questions from the board and also by the themes I had planted via my 3 reasons. The hour blazed by faster than seems possible, in large part because I was having so much fun (hard to believe, but once I got started and past the initial nervousness this was a fairly pleasurable interview). My best indicators that the people on the other side of the table enjoyed it too were that they stayed awake (there were a few people who had noticeably fallen asleep during the interviews of some of my comrades) and then the follow-up questions I got at the social the next day.
- Meeting astronauts informally
Whenever I had a spare block in my schedule I went up to the astronaut offices and looked for anyone with a spare moment of time. Over the course of 3 days, I estimate that I chatted with somewhere between 40 and 50 astronauts. Depending on the person these conversations ranged from the pros to the cons of being an astronaut. But when put together, these conversations have given me a good feeling for their day to day life. In short lots of training, long trips away from home, dealing with bureaucracy, but overall the knowledge that you are doing a job worth doing with people who are similarly committed and the occasional trip into outer space!
- Social (all of us)
The last event on Wednesday evening was a three hour social. Nominally a chance for everyone to let their guard down, in reality it is an extended part of the interview in a different setting. Since I had met almost everyone before, I was able to follow up on things that had sparked interest in previous conversations and had a great time.
Regardless of how things turn out, the other interviewees, the astronauts, and all of the other NASA employees I talked to were so wonderfully dedicated, skilled, and talented that I'm honored to have met and interacted with them. For those on the list still hoping for their chance at an interview in the future, keep being yourself, do what you love, and may your dreams come true!
NASA has completed the first round of interviews and is now narrowing the pool from the top 3% to 1% who will be asked back for second interviews during February and March. Although I wish I could count myself among this elite group, I can at least follow the interview experience vicariously through the accounts of the interviewees themselves. Today's post comes courtesy of astronaut interviewee Chris Martin. He shares with us a detailed description of his interview experience.