Insider tips on NASA's astronaut selection
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:
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.
With thousands of people applying for just a handful of slots, NASA can afford to be very selective. For this reason, they have the luxury of not having to choose anyone with any hint of a medical problem. Here are some of the things I know about the medical requirements:
1. In the past, vision requirements were very restrictive and ruled out a lot of people from applying (including me until they relaxed the requirement before the 2008 selection), but not it just has to be correctable to 20/20, regardless how bad your eyesight may be naturally. They also now allow for applicants to have had laser corrective eye surgery provided it was at least a year prior to application with no adverse side effects.
2. Medically, you have to be able to pass a FAA Class III medical exam just like any student pilot. That is the first medical hurdle you must overcome as you go from the Highly Qualified to the Interview stage of selection.
3. You must also fill out a long pre-screening medical history form where you list any medications you take routinely, hospitalizations any time in your life, every physician visit in the past 3 years and a detailed account of your medical history. Note that you must be completely honest here. Even if you have fully recovered from a past ailment, report it. Some items in your history such as kidney stones may be disqualifiers.
4. If you are selected to interview at NASA, they subject you to an even more invasive questionnaire and set of physical examinations. This also includes anthropomorphic measurements to see if you would even fit in a space capsule. The second round of interviews includes more invasive procedures such as a colonoscopy.
Hope this helps!
also i get severe blackouts ... can i still become an astronaut ??
pls revert back on firstname.lastname@example.org
I'm not sure what "three sciences" you mean, but I advise you study whatever interests you. The chances of becoming an astronaut are so slim, that you can't plan your life around it. Be the best you can be at whatever field you choose while still keeping your astronaut aspirations in mind in the background.
Also, I can't advise on the medical aspects for your personal situation. I can guess that NASA would "select out" someone with a pre-existing condition like that. They have that luxury with thousands of qualified applicants. It could be that such a condition can be managed and be okay, but I suspect you would have to fly commercially rather than as a government astronaut in that case. Still, you would have to pass whatever the medical requirements are to fly.
NASA has selected astronauts ranging from 26-46, with 34 as the median age. You're right in the ballpark at 36. In fact, the average age of the 2013 astronaut class was indeed 36!
So dust off you resume and do what inspires you. Keep at it. Some selectees like Clay Anderson have applied as many as 15 times before ultimately being chosen.
Keep in mind that training takes another several years, and then it could take a few more years to be assigned a mission. For this reason, most astronauts who fly are in their 40s or 50s. There are advantages to age in terms of the accumulated wisdom and skills you bring to a mission, as well as less of a concern with radiation exposure as you age.
I have an important question, and I don't exactly know any astronauts personally...but thank goodness I found you!
If one was looking to become an astronaut, would they have to have some specific job? For example, would one have to be a mechanic, or a computer scientist, or have some other degree/occupation to qualify? Does the specific college one goes to affect the chance of them becoming an astronaut? If one went to, say, MIT, would they have a greater chance of selection than someone who went to a different school? And would it be a good idea to be thinking about this career path before graduating high school?
And to me, a very important question: I understand that eye surgery can be done to aid in qualification, but you mentioned LASIK as a potential surgery. I'm looking to get an implantable contact lens surgery once I have the money and age, and I'm curious to know if that would affect chances.
Your responses are greatly appreciated, and thank you so much in advance!
I have started learning Russian... just in case and the next move will be studying a science degree, either mechanical, aerospace engineering or physics, these inspire me.
I might never get selected, but in fact I am as interested at finding out who I can become by trying and trying, and trying... and trying...
Thanks for the inspiration Brian.
Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. The following degree fields, while related to engineering and the sciences, are not considered qualifying:
*- Degrees in Technology (Engineering Technology, Aviation Technology, Medical Technology, etc.)
*- Degrees in Psychology (except for Clinical Psychology, Physiological Psychology, or Experimental Psychology which are qualifying).
*- Degrees in Nursing.
*- Degrees in Exercise Physiology or similar fields
*- Degrees in Social Sciences (Geography, Anthropology, Archaeology, etc.).
*- Degrees in Aviation, Aviation Management, or similar fields.
Q: If one was looking to become an astronaut, would they have to have some specific job? For example, would one have to be a mechanic, or a computer scientist, or have some other degree/occupation to qualify?
A: Yes, you have to have a job. The minimum requirement is to have at least a bachelor's degree and 3 years of relevant professional experience in order to quality.
Q. Does the specific college one goes to affect the chance of them becoming an astronaut? If one went to, say, MIT, would they have a greater chance of selection than someone who went to a different school?
Yes and no. What matters most is that you are successful. You'd be better off flourishing in a lesser ranked school than floundering in a highly ranked one. However, reputation of schools doesn't hurt, and it's a well known fact that astronauts have come preferentially from some schools like MIT, Purdue, and Colorado.
Q. And would it be a good idea to be thinking about this career path before graduating high school?
Yes. Every decision you make can contribute to your goal. Don't obsess about it, but keep it in mind when you make choices in life.
Q. I understand that eye surgery can be done to aid in qualification, but you mentioned LASIK as a potential surgery. I'm looking to get an implantable contact lens surgery once I have the money and age, and I'm curious to know if that would affect chances.
A. For that, I would suggest you contact the Astronaut Selection Office and ask them. I think laser surgery is approved (assuming enough time has passed since the procedure was done), but other types of surgery may not be.
Q. Will they contact your doctor about your medical record?
A. If you make it to the Highly Qualified round of selection, you will be asked to get a FAA Class III medical exam and fill out an extensive medical history form. Your references will also be contacted at that time. I don't think they contact your physician at this stage, but I imagine it's a possibility if you make it to the later interview stages. Even then, NASA is more likely to lean on their own physicians at that point since they'll be performing various medical tests on you.
Be honest. Be yourself.
I don't think the field of study matters as much as your proficiency and aptitude in the field. Plus, they really want people who are good at more than one thing with a breadth of experiences that demonstrate good social compatibility, emotional stability, and teamwork skills.
I'm a native Russian speaker so I'm wondering how much of an advantage that may provide during the application process (since proficiency seems to be a problem during training). I think I'm a pretty strong candidate (for 27) but every little bit helps!
My fourth, and final, NASA application was over 30 years ago, Duane hadn't been there all that long. But from personal experience I can tell you he was the consummate gentleman, even though I didn't make it. I would suspect that to be unchanged to those seeking to apply today.
He taught me the phrase, "It's easy to go fishing when the pond is so deep" which I still use today. He said that my application group for mission specialist had 3500, 1000 of whom were dropped in the first screen lacking a degree in hard science. Some how they ranked the other 2500 and I was #140. They interviewed 121 and culled out 19. When I asked him the difference between 140 and 119 he said "none." How about between 140 and 1? "Almost none."
I would only echo your thoughts on being overly prepared. The differences will be in the smallest of details. Good luck to all.
John Post, MD
I have a degree in computer science, and I went on to complete a doctor of optometry degree. Do you know if working as an optometrist would qualify as relevant work experience? I wrote off my dream of becoming an astronaut as unrealistic because of the statistics of being selected and went a different direction with my career. I enjoy my work and my patients, but space is a constant tug on my heart strings.
Computer science is an acceptable major subject, per the latest official information. So far, one OD has gotten a flight as a payload specialist (PS); this individual also held a PhD in biochemistry. Considering that several DVMs have gotten flights as MSs and PSs alike, that the Navy's senior-ranking finalist (albeit not selected) for the 2009 class was a dentist (not to mention that many more DVM and DDS/DMD types have at least gotten interviewed), and that clinical/physiological/experimental psychology are all acceptable (other fields of psychology are not), it stands to reason that the OD degree would be qualifying. It never hurts to ask! I have an application in for the ASCAN program myself, by the way. BSc in biology and psychology, and a Master of Public Health, on top of having been a commercial pilot and aviation ground school instructor for a number of years. Working on a second master's degree in aerospace science to fill in a gap year before medical school.
Thank you for taking the time to give such useful information for the process. I am just beginning college and pursuing a degree in a field that I am extremely passionate about, aerospace engineering, and I was hopeing to pursue a career as an astronaut in the future. I have dreamed of being one since I was a young girl and I understand the opportunity is limited. Unfortunately, upon a visit to the doctor for a physical, it was discovered that I have scoliosis. I understand that this inhibits my chances of becoming an astronaut compared to the vast amounts of completely healthy applicants. Do I have any chances of obtaining this goal? Should I continue to pursue it? Thank you so much for your time.
I suspect for NASA that scoliosis would be a select-out feature. However, I encourage you to keep pursuing your dream. In the future, who knows what opportunities may emerge. Private spaceflight companies, for example, may not have such restrictions, depending on the g-forces of the vehicle.
I too have seen the posts on Facebook about interviewees being contacted. In the past, they have done this by disciplinary group, so it may be in batches. Good luck!