Daniel Goldin, the current Head of NASA, announced this week that he believes humans will set foot on Mars within 30 years and that astronauts may be sent to explore some asteroids within the same time period. If he’s right, space exploration will go through something of a boom over the next few decades. Interplanetary missions will only follow the successful construction and occupation of the International Space Station, so there will be plenty of work for astronauts from now on, as the Space Shuttle is used to ferry crews and equipment into orbit.
These missions are the next step in our colonisation of the rest of the solar system and, one hopes, interstellar space and other planetary systems. However, just about the only route to the stars, for now, is as an astronaut under the auspices of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States.
Of course, this looks like bad news for the 5.75 billion of us without American citizenship. Russia’s manned space flight programme is winding down and the Mir space station is due to fall into the Indian Ocean next month. You need to be an American citizen to stand a chance of getting into orbit. It’s forecast that China will launch manned missions in the near future, but their selection of astronauts is taking place under a veil of secrecy. We won’t deal with their procedures here, though they’re sure to make big headlines over the next decade.
What about Euronauts?
Several other space agencies also supply astronauts for NASA missions, but to date, only one British citizen has gone into orbit; Helen Sharman spent eight days on Russia’s Mir space station in the mid-1990s.
However, it appears that the European Space Agency has suspended its selection of astronauts for the time being. ESA already has 16 people in its Astronaut Corps (four each from Germany, France and Italy with the remaining four being taken from the other member states) and ‘no further Astronaut selection is foreseen in the near future. Further investigation has revealed that a new selection procedure will presumably not be started before 2022/2026’.
OK, I’m an American! What are my chances?
Between 2,500 and 3000 people typically apply to NASA every other year. In 1996, they were whittled down to around 150 interviewees before NASA picked 35 Astronaut Candidates for further training and final selection. In 1998, 25 astronauts were selected. In 2000, 17 applicants were invited to join the space programme as either Pilot Astronauts or Mission Specialists. Of these, only three women were selected.
What was the ‘Right Stuff’ all these successful applicants had in common? Well, it breaks down into three areas: health, academic achievement and, if you want to actually fly their spaceships, your experience as a jet pilot.
Bearing in mind the conditions you must work under as an astronaut, you won’t be surprised to hear that NASA place physical fitness at the heart of their considerations. Immediately after launch, space shuttle crew experience enormous G-forces as they are accelerated into orbit and pressed into their seats. Shortly after this, once outside the gravitational pull of the Earth, they become entirely weightless. Every astronaut’s body must be able to bear up under these extreme conditions. One specific they ask for is the blood pressure of 140/90 in a sitting position, but this is only part of a series of very thorough medical examinations.
To even qualify for selection, candidates must have a perfect or correctable-to-perfect vision in both eyes. Working in space requires a great deal of visual acuity, particularly when slotting together hulking great lumps of the multi-million dollar space station with a telescopic metal arm. Pilot astronauts face even greater demands in this department; they must be able to see trouble coming from afar while keeping an eye on the relevant instruments and displays.
Being too tall or short is also a barrier to entry. As a Mission Specialist, you must be between 58.5 and 76 inches in height. Astronaut Pilots need to be between 64 and 76 inches tall. NASA does not disclose why an extra 5.5 inches are required in their application pack, but presumably, it’s to reach the pedals.
Splashdown and getting wet
Don’t bother applying if you don’t like the water. To be an astronaut, you must master all the elements. As part of the initial training programme, you must pass the ominous-sounding Military Water Survival test. You see, 70% of the Earth’s surface is briny blue ocean and there’s a good chance that if you have to leave the Space Station in a hurry, you will eventually land in the sea. During the first month of training (it will take between one and two years to become an astronaut proper), you must be able to swim three lengths of a 25-metre pool without stopping, followed by three lengths wearing a flight suit and tennis shoes. Done that? OK, now tread water for ten minutes.
This is all a prelude to becoming SCUBA qualified. NASA train their astronauts for extra-vehicular activity (spacewalks) in a huge pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory which simulates long periods of zero gravity. This preparation is essential for those who will be working on constructing the Space Station or repairing satellites.
I’m clever, but am I clever enough?
There are also academic hurdles – you certainly have to be brighter than average to earn your place in a NASA spacecraft. They won’t consider anyone without a degree in engineering, biological or physical science or mathematics. This must be followed by a further three years of ‘related, progressively responsible, professional experience’. An HND in David Beckham Studies will not get you into orbit. Unfortunately, neither will a first-class degree summa cum laude in English Literature. You’ll also make it much easier for yourself if you knuckle down and get yourself an advanced degree or doctorate. It’s no good if you just scrape through your studies to get this far – you must show a high quality of academic preparation throughout.
NASA won’t let you grapple with the controls of a space shuttle if you haven’t spent a lot of time flying conventional aircraft. You’ll need at least 1000 hours experience of in flying jets, and if you’ve spent some of this time as a test pilot, so much the better. This section of the application form is perhaps the most daunting for hopeful civilian pilots. There are fifteen slots for all the different jets you may have flown (‘If you need additional experience blocks, use a blank sheet of paper’) and a further ten for ‘Other Aircraft’ such as turboprops or helicopters.
Basically, NASA is looking for great pilots who know how to fly fast aeroplanes. There’s a box labelled ‘Combat Experience’, so presumably, you should know how to get yourself into and out of trouble. If you’re not in the military or an aeronautically-obsessed, billionaire playboy, forget about it – you won’t be at the controls.
Timeline for applications
NASA accepts initial applications in odd numbered years (e.g. this year, 2001), handing out appointments the following year. So, if you complete your form in time for the 1st July deadline, after a series of rigorous interviews and medical examinations in the intervening months, you could be informed of your acceptance the following May, along with a request to report to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas in August 2002. One or two years after this, if all goes well and you impress your employers, you might just get to fly on a Space Shuttle or International Space Station mission. Until the private or recreational space industry takes off, this is your only way off of this rock – good luck!