Secrets to Becoming an Astronaut

Mercury astronauts

Mercury Astronauts who flew one by one

So you want to become an astronaut?

It’s not easy.

The positions are competitive…highly, but astronauts are still being selected to fly aboard the International Space Station which now orbits the Earth.

When I applied in 1977, it was the first time women and minorities earned the right to apply.

Imagine that!

The specifics have changed in the last half decade but a college degree is always a prerequisite with preferably an advanced degree (Ph.D. or MD, for instance).  Was there a trio of people who you’d trust to recommend you?  There were height and weight requirements, a basic physical exam, and a background check.  There would be further testing if invited for an interview.  This group of astronauts would be different from the earlier ones since there would be up to seven people on each flight, unlike the small crews on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights.

After I had flown on a couple Shuttle flights, I had the honor of serving on the Astronaut Selection Board.  It was an eye-opener! Thousands upon thousands applied.

Space Shuttle crew

Seven crew members on the Shuttle

The members of the board divided the applications by discipline (engineering, life sciences, or astronomy, for example) and every…single…one was considered.  Did the would-be space-farer fulfill the criteria? The basics?

Were they “highly qualified” – that is, did they have an advanced degree in a field that was relevant to the tasks that they’d be expected to accomplish in space, on the Shuttle…out there…?

We didn’t need pediatricians or philosophers.

Did they have good recommendations from credible sources?  Even with this winnowing, hundreds of potential selectees remained.

There were meetings in which the multitude of applications was further cut to the number of people expected to be interviewed – perhaps 200.  The head of the Astronaut Selection Office, Duane Ross, had helped select new astronauts for many years.  Amazingly, Duane remembered everything about the people he’d seen years before.  If someone had been interviewed and not selected, he could describe why that specific person had almost made the cut or had totally bombed some part of the process.

Close quarters in Spacelab

Close quarters in Spacelab

Interviews began: each an hour and a half long, the applicant and the head of Flight Crew Operations, several astronauts with different backgrounds, and sometimes outside scientists.

After many iterations of this careful and sometimes brutal purging – most of the interviewees would have made perfectly good astronauts – it boiled down to the two characteristics that we wanted most in all astronauts.

Can you guess what they were?

Astronauts nowadays must work together for years and live together for extended periods, out there…in…space.  What characteristics would you want in someone you spent that much time with?

All astronauts must be:  1. high performing, and 2. low maintenance.

Do you fit that description?

Then go for it!

– Rhea
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