When you ask a child "what do you want to be when you grow up?" there is typically one correct answer: "an astronaut." For decades, astronauts have inspired and excited people of all ages. But what does it actually take to become an astronaut?
NASA's list of minimum requirements for being an astronaut includes holding a bachelor's degree and passing a physical. But only the 120 most highly-qualified applicants were invited to interview in 2016 (out of a record-breaking 18,300 applications!), so one has to wonder what "soft skills" an applicant needs in order to rise to the top. While we can't guarantee you'll end up on the first manned mission to Mars, we've put together some tips to get you started.
What NASA Wants
Anne Roemer, NASA Manager for Astronaut Selection, and Shannon Walker, NASA Astronaut, answered some questions about their astronaut selection process during their 2016 recruiting season. "We have astronauts with all different kinds of backgrounds - from a vet, to an oceanographer, military test pilots, medical doctors, etc.," they explained. But not all computer science degrees are equal, with Walker adding that "the experience after the degree is equally as important."
She continued: "NASA is looking for people who are not just qualified in their field, but have a variety of skills and interests. A varied background will help your application stand out. We do need people with a wide mix of skills. Those additional courses could potentially be beneficial, but it would really depend on how you use them following your degree."
Walker added that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. "It took me five application cycles before I was selected. '94, '96, '98, 2000 and 2004. I was interviewed each time. It does not matter how many times you apply. Each selection looks for different skill sets."
A Sharp Mind
Bravery, charisma, fitness, patience, ambition, and a sense of humor are just some of the qualities NASA looks for in an astronaut today. The interview panel who selects candidates needs to determine whether or not you're the kind of person who can provide a pleasant cohabitation experience. In that scenario, it pays to be friendly and quick with a joke.
"It comes down to how much of a positive impression you make on the interview panel," former NASA astronaut Tom Jones told USA Today. "They size you up in an hour and decide if you're a person they and others would like to work with."
Having a winning personality won't be good enough in just English, however: NASA astronauts also have to learn how to speak Russian. "It's taken very seriously in the program because of the level you need to reach if, God forbid, there was an emergency on board and there was a panicky discussion going on in Russian on the radio," Canadian astronaut and medical doctor David Saint-Jacques told Universe Today. "Ultimately, you need to be fluent to be really useful in a situation like that."
Tips From The Pros
Many of these skills take years to cultivate, so it's important to start as early as you can. In his Reddit AMA, retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield laid out some starting pointers: "To become an astronaut, I recommend 3 things: keep your body healthy, get an advanced technical education, and learn to make tough decisions and stick with them," he wrote. "Learn other languages, learn to fly, learn to scuba dive, learn medical training, always be pursuing new skills. There is no one specific path to becoming an astronaut. The best thing you can do is train yourself to enjoy building up the skills that end up defining who you are."
Maybe most importantly, don't psyche yourself out. NASA astronauts are "self-confident and in good shape, of course," astronomer Michelle Williams told us on the Curiosity Podcast when discussing her many meetings with astronauts over the years. "But they're not otherworldly. They're normal people who just do a somewhat abnormal job, in my opinion. The folks that I've met have all been very nice, very passionate about what they do, very passionate about sharing it with people." And yes: "some of them have been very funny."
Oh, and one more thing: don't think that spots are too limited. Dr. Mae Jemison a former NASA astronaut and first woman of color to travel into space, predicts an increase in job opportunities as space exploration matures. As she wrote on Reddit: "The world is going to be wide open for folks who go into space as a profession as you grow older. People will be working in space with commercial companies as well as with government entities like NASA. What would be needed would be a strong science background, probably physiologically good health, flexibility, team work and a zest for meeting new challenges."