NASA Is Seeking Astronauts. Do You Have The Right Stuff?

Dec 16, 2015
Originally published on December 29, 2015 8:10 pm

On Monday, NASA started accepting applications for its new class of astronauts. Applying is simple: Just log in to USAjobs.gov, search for "astronaut," and upload your resume and references. The job description says "Frequent travel may be required."

It's a bit more difficult to be picked. In 2013, more than 6,000 people applied to the program. Only eight were selected. That's an acceptance rate of less than 1 percent.

To be an astronaut, you need a degree in a scientific field, vision correctable to 20/20, and you've got to stand between 4 feet, 8.5 inches tall and 6 foot 4. (History suggests it also helps to be white and a man, but NASA says it's trying hard to remedy that.)

Still, there are many possible paths to space. For former astronaut Charlie Bolden, that journey started in middle school.

"I fell in love with a place called the United States Naval Academy in seventh grade when I saw a program on television called Men of Annapolis," Bolden says.

The men portrayed in the program reminded him of his father and uncles, who had served in WWII. He resolved to attend the academy once he graduated from high school. But there was a problem.

"I grew up in the segregated South," Bolden says.

The South Carolina congressional delegation refused to give Bolden the required nomination to the school. An Illinois congressman, instead, opened the way to the Naval Academy, and Bolden began his military career. He flew in Vietnam, became a test pilot, and was selected to become an astronaut in 1980. It was the beginning of the space shuttle era.

For Mike Massimino, another former astronaut, it all started with Apollo 11 in the summer of 1969.

"I was 6 years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon," Massimino says. "And I wanted to be an astronaut — dressed up like an astronaut for Halloween, played astronaut in my backyard with my little astronaut, Snoopy."

But as he grew up, in Franklin Square, N.Y., that dream started to seem "ridiculous," Massimino says. "I didn't know anybody that was an astronaut."

So he went to school to become an engineer. After picking up a degree from Columbia University and four more from MIT, Massimino was accepted to the astronaut corps in 1996.

Maria Banks, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, is planning to apply to the astronaut corps this year. In college, she studied harp performance, and when she graduated she found a job playing on a cruise ship that traveled all over the world.

"I would take soil samples and rock samples and hide them in my suitcase," Banks says. "I don't know why; I just had to do it. Every day I would try to find the most geologically interesting thing I could do — climb a volcano, or hike a desert, hike on glaciers."

That sent her back to school, where she started a Ph.D. program in geology and planetary science. Among other things, she studied the fingerprints of glaciers on Mars, using data and images from NASA missions.

These three people — a pilot, an engineer, a planetary geologist — came from different backgrounds and different eras, but they all felt the same way about applying.

"I was convinced that I did not stand any chance," Bolden says.

"I thought there was no way they were going to pick me," Massimino says.

"I guess I didn't believe it was ... an attainable goal," Banks says.

But they still applied.

Though the technological side of the application has changed a bit over the years (Bolden wrote his application on a sheet of paper; Banks will visit the USAjobs website), the selection process has remained virtually identical. Current astronauts and NASA officials sift through the applications — eliminating the obviously unqualified and making piles, based on profession. Physicists are compared with other physicists. Pilots with other pilots. The cream of the crop (100 or so) will be invited to Houston for live interviews and medical screening. Then a small number will be selected to begin about two years of intense astronaut training.

"If you're not tops at what you're doing now," Bolden says, "you're not going to be selected."

Bolden was tops. He went on to pilot two shuttle missions and commanded two more. He helped put the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. In 2009, President Obama appointed him the head of NASA.

It took Massimino a few more tries to get accepted. He first applied in 1989, then again in 1991 and was rejected. In 1994, he made it to the interview round.

"My attitude was just to be myself," Massimino says. "When you're trying to realize a life's dream, you want to speak from the heart."

He was rejected again.

Finally, in 1996, NASA selected him. He flew on two shuttle missions and helped repair the Hubble. He became the first person to tweet from space. Today he's a professor at Columbia.

This round will be Banks' third attempt.

" 'Just keep trying,' " she says. "Those are the words I kept hearing from all of the astronauts I talked with."

If Banks is accepted, there is some question about what she'll do. The shuttle program that began with Bolden ended with Massimino in 2011. Since then, NASA has been accused of lacking clear goals. But Bolden says future astronauts have a lot to look forward to.

"They are going to be the trailblazers for our ventures to Mars," Bolden says.

He says they'll fly in new spacecraft and return to lunar orbit for the first time since 1972.

"It all sounds fantastic to me," Banks says. "I would be happy doing just about anything."

She's preparing her application. The deadline: Feb. 18, 2016.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The job description says, frequent travel may be required. NASA is accepting applications for a new class of astronauts. You log into the usajobs.gov. Search for astronaut, and upload your resume and references - easy - OK, not so easy. The last time NASA did this, the acceptance rate was less than 1 percent. So who has the right stuff? NPR's Adam Cole spoke to two former astronauts and one astronaut hopeful about the path to space.

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: For Charlie Bolden, it started in seventh grade. He'd hurry home after school to catch his favorite show.

CHARLIE BOLDEN: "Men Of Annapolis" - it was a regular program on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEN OF ANNAPOLIS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, this is Annapolis, the United States Naval Academy.

BOLDEN: That's where I wanted to go to college.

COLE: But Bolden was a black teenager from the segregated South, and his congressman wouldn't give him the required nomination. An Illinois congressman opened the way to the academy instead, and Bolden began his military career. He flew in Vietnam, became a test pilot, was selected to become an astronaut in 1980, the beginning of the space shuttle era. For Mike Massimino, it started with a different broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man...

MIKE MASSIMINO: I was six years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and wanted to be an astronaut, dressed up like an astronaut for Halloween, played astronaut in my back yard with my little astronaut Snoopy.

COLE: But growing up in Franklin Square, Long Island, that dream started to seem ridiculous.

MASSIMINO: I didn't know anybody that was an astronaut.

COLE: So Massimino went to Columbia to become an engineer. There were lots of engineers in Long Island, but 16 years later, in 1996, he was accepted to the Astronaut Corps. Maria Banks is applying this year. In college, she studied harp performance. And when she graduated, she found a job playing on a cruise ship that traveled all over the world.

MARIA BANKS: I would take soil samples and rock samples and hide them in my suitcase and (laughter) every day I would try to find the most geologically interesting thing I could do - climb a volcano or hike a desert, hike on glaciers.

COLE: That sent her back to school, where she studied the fingerprints of glaciers on Mars. Different backgrounds, different eras - but these three people - a pilot, an engineer and a planetary geologist - all felt the same way about applying.

BOLDEN: I was convinced that I did not stand any chance.

MASSIMINO: I thought there was no way they were going to pick me.

BANKS: I guess I didn't believe it was maybe an attainable goal.

COLE: But they still applied. The process hasn't changed much in the past 35 years. Everyone submits an application proving their basic qualifications. Astronauts need a degree in a scientific field and three years of experience. They need vision that's correctable to 20-20, and they can't be taller than 6-foot-4. But most of all...

BOLDEN: If you're not tops at what you're doing now, you're not going to be selected.

COLE: Charles Bolden was tops. He went on to pilot two shuttle missions and commanded two more. He helped put the Hubble Telescope into orbit. Today, he's the head of NASA. Mike Massimino was tops, too, but it took him four tries to get accepted. He first applied in 1989.

MASSIMINO: And I was told, no.

COLE: Then 1991.

MASSIMINO: No again a second time.

COLE: In 1994, he made it to the interview round.

MASSIMINO: And then you go back and wait. And I was told, no.

COLE: Finally, in 1996, he was accepted. He flew on two shuttle missions and helped repair the Hubble Telescope. Today, he's a professor at Columbia. This round will be Maria Bank's third attempt.

BANKS: Just keep trying. Those are the words I kept hearing from all of the astronauts I talked with.

COLE: But if she's accepted, what will her mission be? The shuttle program ended in 2011, and since then, NASA has been accused of lacking clear goals. But Bolden says future astronauts have a lot to look forward to.

BOLDEN: They are going to be the trailblazers for our ventures to Mars.

COLE: He says they'll fly new spacecraft and return to lunar orbit for the first time since 1972.

BANKS: It all sounds fantastic to me. I would be happy doing just about anything.

COLE: She's preparing to submit her application before the February 18 deadline. Adam Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.