Americans from every US state, the District of Columbia, and four US territories have thrown their helmets into Saturn’s rings for a truly out of this world job. Applications to be a part of NASA’s next class of astronauts closed in March, and it has since been announced that over 12,000 US citizens applied – the second-highest number ever received. The few astronaut candidates who are successful will likely be involved in the Artemis Mission, sending the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024.
“We’ve entered a bold new era of space exploration with the Artemis program, and we are thrilled to see so many incredible Americans apply to join us,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “The next class of Artemis Generation astronauts will help us explore more of the Moon than ever before and lead us to the Red Planet.”
To get to this stage of the process, applicants have already had to present a master’s degree in any STEM discipline (raised from a bachelor’s degree in the last intake), a minimum of two years of professional experience or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft, and complete a two-hour online assessment.
Anne Roemer, manager of the Astronaut Selection Board and director of human resources at Johnson Space Center, Texas, spoke to IFLScience about how humbled and reassured she feels by the number of talented people whose resumes she gets to read through. But she doesn’t sift through the thousands of applications on her own.
“In the beginning, the first kind of sifting through is done by HR professionals, just to make sure that the folks that are coming through have met qualifications… And after that, we rely on astronauts and subject matter experts. So we pull in senior-level officials from the various discipline groups that we use… to kind of work the next down-select.”
“I can tell you the astronauts that participate in the interview process as board members are focused on, if I could sum it down to one question, 'would I want to fly with this person in space?'”
From both a technical and social perspective, ensuring that you can spend three years with someone going to Mars in a tin can is highly important, and one that people are testing out a fair bit right now in the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of the qualities the panel look for in prospective astronauts are similar to other jobs.
“We're looking for leadership experience, teamwork experience, the ability for applicants to communicate both through the written word and verbally,” Roemer explained.
“We also tend to focus on operations experience, which for us means do they have examples, either through their career experience or… even through hobbies, of being in situations… where they have to make real-time decisions, judgments that could have big consequences.”
By around September this year, an interviewee shortlist of around 120 people will be invited to the Johnson Space Center, Texas, for two rounds of interviews and activities to test their suitability as an astronaut. One further test all applicants must pass in order to progress is the NASA long-duration astronaut physical, where they’ll have to meet specific requirements involving eyesight and stature.
In June 2021, a handful of successful applicants (likely between 8 and 12 individuals) will be put forward as astronaut candidates – but this does not mean that they will immediately join NASA’s 48 active astronauts, Roemer explained.
“The AsCan's [Astronaut Candidates] come in as a class… And then at that point, they are put through a roughly two year… basic training program where they're getting trained in…[the] Russian language, International Space Station operating skills, robotics, extravehicular activity training, etc.”
From here, the now official astronauts can be assigned to missions, which could involve another 18 months to two years of further training. The latest cohort to complete this training program joined NASA’s ranks earlier this year and were the first to graduate since the agency announced its Artemis program. Therefore, as well as being assigned missions to the International Space Station, they may embark on journeys to the Moon and, ultimately, Mars.
“I think it is an exciting time to contemplate being an astronaut,” Roemer told IFLScience.
“I think the concept of returning to the Moon and then… onward to Mars – that's true exploration… So I'm excited to keep working through this selection process, and pick a new class of astronauts.”