First, there were 18,000 hopefuls. Now, there’s just 12 astronaut trainees in NASA’s Class of 2017, and it’s safe to say that it’s the most diverse group to date. We’ve been speaking to a few of them, and one – Major Jasmin Moghbeli – is another whose life up until this point is already something to marvel at.
For her, traveling beyond the boundaries of the atmosphere is the next logical step – but there are no delusions of grandeur here. Despite making it through one of the most rigorous job applications in history, humility is the name of the game here.
“I was the one that probably doubted it the most,” Moghbeli told IFLScience. “People kept saying ‘oh we knew you were going to get it.’”
Just recently, we spoke to another NASA Class of 2017 member, Zena Cardman – a marine biologist, a wanderer of the Antarctic, and a poet. Moghbeli has ended up in the same, highly exclusive club, but she’s taken a very different path in life to get there.
“Joining the military was something I’ve wanted to do since middle school. You know, joining the Marine Corps, becoming a Cobra pilot,” she explains.
“I joined thinking I wanted to fly jets, but I ended up enjoying helicopters more. The Cobra is an attack helicopter, so I thought that was very cool.” The excitement in her voice resembled that of a diehard; someone who becomes effervescent at the mere mention of their pet passion. “I absolutely love flying, especially helicopters.”
As you would expect, zooming through the skies of some of the most dangerous places on the planet temporarily distracted her from her ultimate dream – to be an astronaut – which she had thought about since “the sixth grade.”
“After flight school, flying through Afghanistan on combat missions – I wasn’t thinking about being an astronaut then, and I honestly don’t know if I would have left to become an astronaut at that point.
“When I first joined, during an inspection, a major – our commanding officer – asked me what I wanted to do with my future, and I remember saying I wanted to be an astronaut then.” It was only at the end of her first combat tour that thoughts of Martian vacations really came to the fore again.
At the time of her selection, she was assisting the US Marine Corps by testing out H-1 helicopters, experimental aviation creations that are designed to replace the current mainstay helicopters of the American Armed Forces. Flying is everything to Moghbeli – and now she’s getting the ultimate upgrade.
As you would expect, getting that final phone call after the 18-month-long selection process came as quite a shock – “something that’s pretty hard to adequately put into words.”
Being an astronaut “always seemed a bit like an impossible goal, but to actually get that call and have them ask me if I wanted to come join them at Johnson Space Center in Houston…you know, my hands were shaking.
“I called my parents, my dad was crying so much they couldn’t drive home from the pizza place they were at – so it was pretty terrible,” she tells us, laughing.
“I was pretty overwhelmed by how quickly people found out. I got back to my unit here and there were signs all over my squadron. I told my property manager here that I was going to be moving out soon and she said ‘I know, I saw it on the news!’”
In today's tense climate, it's worth pointing out that Moghbeli is from an immigrant family, one that fled Iran after the violent 1979 revolution. Today, although she won't be the first Iranian-American to leave Earth's atmosphere, she is the first astronaut with Middle Eastern roots since NASA's candidate program began in earnest in the late 1950s – which makes her life an extraordinarily optimistic story; a tale that unquestionably encapsulates the very best of the founding principles of the United States.
As before, much of the NASA astronaut selection process remains both under wraps and off-the-record. Although there’s some rather unique aspects to it all, it’s arguably the parts of it that are somewhat mundane that are the most jarring.
For example, you’d think that applying to be an astronaut would require some secret initiation, a tap on the shoulder, or an email out of the blue, but no. Moghbeli explains that “you just post your resume online on USA Jobs like any other job. So for myself, as a pilot, I had to talk about my aeronautical experience, and get some references. That’s it to start!”
One thing we can reveal about the selection process is that far less of it is about physical and technical prowess than people may think. It’s driven quite significantly by the psychological requirements.
“I think a lot of the selection was geared around personality, around being an active contributor to the team, about being able to hopefully travel to the far reaches of the Solar System,” she adds. “When I thought about it all afterwards, it all made sense.”
Moghbeli, at the time of writing, has just begun her training down in Texas. It’s more than likely that her flight experience will be pounced on by the instructors – after all, she’s insanely qualified in this respect.
After picking up a Bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering with Information Technology from MIT, she went on to earn a Master’s in Aerospace Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. As mentioned, she’s also a qualified test pilot. She's earned nothing short of a plethora of medals and distinctions over just a handful of years.
Back in college, she wanted to have her cake and eat. “I was convinced I was going to double-major in architecture and aerospace engineering, and everyone I talked to about that laughed at me.” She ended up picking the science of the skies because of its timeless appeal.
“Engineering always really appealed to me,” Moghbeli explains. “I’ve always liked math and science and technology. I’ve always been impressed with what humans can do with technology, and how far we’ve come – even in my lifetime, 33 years.”
So after training’s complete, where does Moghbeli hope to go?
“There are lots of different possibilities, right?” she muses, happily.
“I still think the ISS is incredibly cool, and the experiments we do on that help everyone on Earth and future space explorations. There’s been a lot of talks about going back to the Moon, or even Mars – even going further into space than we’ve ever gone before.
“At this point, I’m still trying to get through the two years of training!” As ever, Moghbeli remains incredibly grounded, perhaps ironically considering her ultimate destination among the stars. Speaking of which, what does she think it’ll be like the first time she is unshackled from the chains of gravity?
“Gosh – who knows, you know? I read different books about different people’s experiences. I read Spaceman by Mike Massimino, when he first looked back on planet Earth, and got that feeling of our whole planet without any boundaries and that kind of stuff.
“It’s just something so few people get to experience, so it’ll just be… incredible, yeah.”
Speaking of incredible opportunities, it doesn’t take much to realize that Moghbeli is one of the most exhilarating ambassadors for women in STEM subjects currently around.
“I never thought that being a woman would limit me in any sense of anything I could have done,” she tells IFLScience, before adding that she’s “been very lucky; I’ve always had very supportive people in my life.”
“You know, I’ve worked with different STEM programs, working with kids. Now I’ll get to do more of that, have more of an impact, and hopefully make those kids feel the same way,” Moghbeli tells us.
“They don’t even have to think about that they are a girl versus a boy – seeing a female doing it, becoming an astronaut, seeing someone you can relate to can really help you imagine the possibilities. I really want to put that out there.
“Kids are naturally excited about space,” she says. “So naturally fueling that flame, and getting them to continue that when they’re older, is what I want to see happen.”
It’s clear that times are changing, and for the better – but no one can do it alone. Even pioneers of the Solar System need a helping hand.
“There have been so many people that have helped me get here, so I just want to thank them all,” Moghbeli emphasizes, right at the end of the call. “My parents, my brother, my friends have always believed in me, to be honest.”
“There’s no way I’d be here without them.”