Seeing the Earth from space is an experience like no other. At least, according to the few people who have flown into space and orbited around our little planet. It is a dream shared by many to boldly go where less than 1,000 humans have gone before. For this reason, many apply to be an astronaut every time there is a call from a space agency. But how does one become an astronaut? IFLScience spoke to NASA to find out.
NASA employs around 18,000 people, from cleaners to directors, and every single one makes the agency function. However, it is undeniable that the role of astronaut tends to be the one that captures the imagination of the public. The complexity of the job description, the public-facing part of the role, and the risks of this profession make it one of the most critical positions one might take at NASA. As explorers and ambassadors of Earth, the job is hard but, according to those involved in the selection, far from unobtainable.
Let’s first talk about the basic requirements to become a NASA astronaut. In its last call for astronauts, it needed applicants with a master’s degree in any STEM discipline. Despite Dr Ellie Arroway’s call to send a poet, being an astronaut is still a very technical and scientific profession. Also, you can’t be fresh out of college. You need a minimum of two years of professional experience or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft. Being a jet pilot is not a requisite to join NASA, but it is a requisite to go to space – but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
There is no "i" in team or astronaut
The final part of the application is a two-hour online assessment, though it should be easy if you have gone through a STEM degree. Beyond the qualifications, you also need to be able to work in very cramped environments; spacecraft and space stations are not known to be spacious. If you check all those boxes, you might wonder what would make you stand out. For NASA, it is not just about how good you are in your job, but who you are as a person.
“We are looking for folks that definitely have strong technical skills. That's a given if you're going to come and be in this role for NASA. But we're also looking for folks who have a bit of a multidisciplinary background. So folks that have done a lot of things not just in their work experiences, but their life experiences,” NASA Astronaut Selection Manager April Jordan told IFLScience.
“This is not an easy job to come into. There's a lot of training that people have to go through. And so when we're looking at the whole person, our evaluation process really looks at everything about you, not just your work history, but also personally, what are the types of things that you're into?”
An example that Jordan mentions is a candidate with a background in race car driving who did not think it relevant to include in their application. But being able to make split-second decisions under pressure is vital in space. An astronaut needs to be adaptable and resilient.
“Team skills are a huge piece of being in this role. Nothing really happens within the astronaut’s world as an individual. You're working with the team all the time. So when we select folks, we bring them in as a team," said Jordan, who is also Deputy Human Resources Director. "You're training for your missions as a team, and that's your team in space and your team on the ground that you're communicating with. Team skills is something that is really high on the list for top competencies that we're looking for.”
It's not about being the best, but the right fit
If you are keeping a list, like we are, you might feel you have a fighting chance. But there are a lot of applicants (12,000 during the last round) for just a handful of places. The last class was just 10 astronauts. There is a call every four years and the next class will graduate in a few months. Between the call and the actual selection, there is a long road ahead.
Jordan explained that the process is very thorough and very long. They need to select a great team, but also a team that makes sense for the class they are trying to create. You might be a perfect candidate, but not the right person for that particular moment. Feel free to join us in assuming this is the case for any rejections we get going forward.
“I would say that's probably one of the bigger pieces coming to your final recommendation,” Jordan explained. “You meet a lot of great people that have accomplished a lot of great things within their lives, and it's difficult to get from 12,000 to 10 candidates for that. But it's a team effort and selection as well. So we depend on a lot of experts throughout NASA to help us get to the right set of people for that particular class.”
Becoming an astronaut requires a lot of training. You will not be "just" a specialized scientist or pilot. You will be a leader, a public speaker, a NASA expert, and a survivalist. No matter the level of skills and knowledge you have when you get in, you will still get a lot of training.
“The training to be an astronaut is pretty amazing. Our astronauts, come to us already very educated, very smart, and top of everything. As far as physically, academically, professionally, they're already great people but we do have training that we need to give them here,” Cassie Rodriquez, Chief Training Officer for human spaceflight operations and Spacecraft Communicator at Mission Control based at NASA Johnson Space Center, told IFLScience.
Every day is a school day
Being an astronaut is a long career of learning and training, from new vehicles to new technologies, new experiments to perform, new research, and vital communication skills. There is a focus on honing their skills with high-risk situations in mind too. This starts from the get-go when they are still Astronaut Candidates, or as NASA calls them, As-Cans. Every astronaut goes through basic, advanced, and then flight-specific training. But even when they blast off, they continue to be trained. There is onboard-specific training that will be done by colleagues once on the International Space Station (ISS).
“[The As-Can] will learn how to live and work on the space station. In addition to that, they'll learn the fundamentals of robotics, how to manipulate an arm that's huge and moves really slowly. It's not like a video game. So we teach them how to combine those visual and hand coordination elements, and the different cameras that you might have,” said Rodriquez.
“Then they'll also learn EVA [extravehicular activity]. This is where they'll go into the neutral buoyancy lab, the NBL, which is the best environment that we currently have on Earth to simulate what it's like to be in a spacesuit floating in space. The EVA training is probably one of the hardest that they get. And then they'll also learn how to fly jets.”
There is a minimum of nine EVA training sessions during the As-Can period and a minimum of another nine when astronauts are training for a mission. EVA requires many long hours of work in a cramped environment, which comes with its own risks. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano almost drowned during one. And he was not in the pool. He was in space.
“We want to make sure those skills are sharp. It's physical, it's mental, it's technical. The EVA is one of the most riskiest things they do when they're up there. We want them to have all of those skills fresh and know instinctively how to react.”
Lunar changes ahead
When they are not training for a mission, the astronauts are not sitting idly. There are a lot of jobs to be done in the astronaut office, and at the moment, many are supporting the efforts of the Artemis Program, humanity's return to deep space and the Moon. This includes testing out technology (like the Moon camera), as well as understanding changes in training and more.
“Artemis training has mainly been focused on Artemis II: Victor, Reid, Christina, and Jeremy. They're going to be the first ones. So all the Artemis training has been focused on those four. We've had a lot of introduction work, like hey, what does an Artemis mission look like? What's different about Artemis from Apollo? Some of that basic training so that the crew can understand what Artemis is and where it's going,” Rodriquez explained.
The As-Can basic training or other aspects of astronaut training might change in the future as NASA’s priority shifts from the International Space Station to the Moon, but for now, the astronauts are trained with the ISS in mind.
The selection to be an astronaut is complex and you are competing against a lot of people. The training is the very opposite of a walk in the park. It’s a tough job. But the message from NASA is to not discourage yourself if you want to become an astronaut.
“NASA is looking for a diverse group of people to come into the agency because it's all the different ideas and experiences that really make our missions possible. I think that's how we've been able to do amazing things over the history of NASA: having people from a lot of different backgrounds there. So, I just encourage people to apply,” said Jordan.
This is a sentiment echoed by Rodriquez, who also highlighted the international aspects of human space exploration. After all, not all of us can become NASA astronauts, due to living in other countries.
“Anybody can be an astronaut if they have that passion and that drive and that desire,” Rodriquez stated. “We are also opening the doors for international collaboration with different countries. The only way that we're really going to go to the Moon, stay on the Moon, and go further is if we do this as a planet and not just individual countries.”
NASA’s motto is "For The Benefit Of All" and based on what we have learned about astronaut training, we can add another famous quote: per aspera ad astra: "To The Stars Through Difficulties".