What Does It Take To Be Chosen as an Astronaut Candidate?
A STEM degree and a decent level of physical fitness are obvious requirements. But it might not hurt to be a scuba-diving and roller-coaster junkie on top of that, too.
One of the biggest questions that people constantly ask me is what the requirements are for being selected to be a commercial astronaut candidate. In all honesty, I don't know the full criteria; the internals of the selection process are a closely guarded secret. Those who are selected never really know for sure what it was that led to them being chosen.
Even so, there are several qualifications that are definitely important to have if you are thinking about applying to NASA or one of the commercial space programs.
If I had to guess, I would say that education is probably the very first thing the selection committee looks at. Technically, you are only required to have a four-year degree in a STEM-related field. Realistically, however, almost everyone I know who was selected (either by NASA or by a commercial space program) has an advanced degree in a STEM-related field.
Shortly after being selected as an astronaut candidate in one of the commercial programs, I actually asked why there is such a big focus on education. The answer I was given is that when you go to space, it isn't just a joyride. Science experiments are part of every space mission, and an astronaut needs to be able to communicate the science in an intelligent way upon their return to Earth.
Being scuba-certified is also important for anyone thinking about applying to be an astronaut candidate. There are numerous similarities between scuba diving and being in space. Beyond that, though, scuba diving proves that you can handle being in a situation in which your life depends on correctly operating the equipment you are wearing, much like using a spacesuit. It also proves that you can work in difficult conditions.
One suggestion: Don't stop at a basic open-water scuba certification. Get some advanced scuba certifications if you can. Even if getting advanced certifications is not an option, try to get as much scuba experience as possible. I say this because there are some things that I've had to do in various training exercises that would have been really difficult with only minimal scuba experience. One example is a wall-hang exercise that I was put through during sea survival training.
The exercise is a little difficult to describe, but it involved hanging by my legs with my head underwater. Since I was upside-down and not using a scuba mask, water immediately flooded my sinuses. While I was upside-down and holding my breath, I had to retrieve an emergency air supply from my flight jacket, turn on the air and put a regulator in my mouth (which meant opening my mouth underwater and having my mouth fill with water). From there, I had to expel all of the water from my mouth and from the regulator and breathe normally for about a minute. This requires a considerable amount of concentration, because you have to make sure not to accidentally inhale through your nose if you are to avoid drowning.
I have multiple advanced scuba certifications and have been diving since 1993. Having spent so much time scuba diving, I completed the wall-hang exercise with relative ease. However, I can't even imagine how tough it would have been without that experience.
I'm not sure if this is an absolute requirement or not, but knowing how to fly an airplane is also important. Aviation gets you used to operating a complex machine (the aircraft) in a highly dynamic environment. It also gets you used to using checklists and thinking in terms of procedures. Incidentally, the program I am in also requires astronaut candidates to participate in aerobatic flight. Aerobatics subject you to many of the same forces as spaceflight, such as heavy G-loads.
You will notice that I used the phrase "participate in aerobatics." Even though I have taken aerobatic flying lessons and have definitely flown my share of aerobatics, not all aerobatic flight exercises involve being in the pilot's seat. On one flight, for example, I was asked to sit in the airplane's back seat and repeatedly check my blood pressure during high-G maneuvers.
There were any number of reasons why I had to do this. First, there is the research aspect. The first astronauts were military test pilots, but that isn't the case in the commercial space program. Commercial astronauts come from all walks of life. (Case in point: I have spent my entire adult life working as an IT pro, which is about as far removed from the space program as you can get.) Because commercial astronauts are not necessarily recruited from the military, researchers are studying how spaceflight impacts the average person. This research will one day prove invaluable when some of the commercial flight providers begin launching space tourists.
Another reason I was asked to take blood pressure readings while under G-load was because exercise gets you used to performing a task while you are uncomfortable. The simple head movements that are required in order to take a blood pressure reading and write down the results generally induce nausea. This is on top of the fact that you must also actively force the blood into your head to avoid passing out from the Gs.
During a space launch, an astronaut must be able to monitor critical systems and take action if necessary, all while under G-load. Performing tasks while under G-load in an aerobatic aircraft gives you a chance to find out what it's like to have to work under those kinds of conditions.
I don't know how much of a role it plays in the overall selection process, but physical fitness is also really important. Admittedly, this is something I really struggled with. Those who have met me know that a decade ago, I was seriously overweight. I tried everything that I could think of to lose the weight, but nothing seemed to work. About a year before I applied to the commercial space program, I switched to a strict vegetarian diet and adopted a relentless exercise regimen. Eventually the pounds went away.
I haven't seen any firm guidelines about the level of fitness that is required by the program. However, a spacesuit will only accommodate a certain size. Perhaps more importantly, some of the training exercises are extremely physical in nature.
I have participated in a number of simulations, for example, that required me to perform a simulated parachute jump into the water. Even though the parachute jump wasn't real, I really was dropped into a swimming pool while wearing a spacesuit. It's tough to keep water out of the suit, and the water makes the suit extremely heavy. You can imagine how much physical effort is involved in climbing into a life raft while wearing a spacesuit filled with water.
Be Known for Something
Another bit of advice that someone gave me is that it's important to be known for something (although that particular bit of advice was given in reference to the NASA program). It makes it easier for the members of the selection committee to remember who you are.
In my case, for example, I'm probably best-known for the writing I do. When the selection committee was reviewing my application, I can just imagine someone saying something like, "Posey? Oh, you mean the technology author?"
And One More Thing
This last one isn't part of the selection criteria by any stretch of the imagination, but it is something that I strongly recommend.
One of the things that has really helped me endure the training process is the fact that I used to be a roller-coaster junkie. In the early 1990s, there was a theme park in the city where I lived, and in the summer I would go almost every day after work. I honestly believe that spending so much time at the amusement park ultimately made it easier for me to handle centrifuge rides, aerobatic flights and things like that.
Ultimately, I can't tell you exactly what it takes to be selected as a commercial astronaut candidate, because I don't even know myself. Even so, the things that I have mentioned will go a long way toward improving your chances.
About the Author
Brien Posey is a 21-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.