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.
NASA Astronaut Selection Office Duane Ross gave an illuminating presentation at JSC last Thursday about the selection process. He covered questions ranging from academic degrees to interview questions, medical screening, and Russian language requirements. Pete Dimmick was among those present in the audience. Here are his notes from the event, reprinted with permission: