Want to be an astronaut? Well, NASA wrapped up its latest astronaut recruitment period last year, so you'll have to wait a few years until the agency posts the "Help Wanted" sign again. Over the two-and-a-half-month astronaut recruitment window, aspiring spacegoers deluged NASA with over 6, 300 online applications through USAJobs.gov. That bumper crop-the second highest in NASA's history-is surprising given that NASA is without a space-capable vehicle since the retirement of the space shuttle.
To find out what the next final frontiersmen and women will be training to do, as well as what it takes to earn a coveted spot in the astronaut corps, PopSci spoke with Duane Ross, manager of the Astronaut Selection Office at Johnson Space Center (JSC) since 1975. For more background on some of the medical requirements, PopSci also spoke with William "Bill" Tarver, medical director of the JSC clinical services branch.
An edited transcript of the conversations follows.
PopSci: Why do you think so many people applied to be astronauts this time around?
Duane Ross: With this class we did a major recruitment effort. We tried to reach all segments of society, not just the space cadets and folks like that, but anybody who might be interested and has the background and wants to come down here and help us. Communication tools are a lot better now than they used to be with the internet, Facebook and Twitter. The public affairs folks did a super job of covering the waterfront with the announcement and letting people know an application period was open.
The fact that the shuttle was going away, a lot of people had seen that-NASA was on people's minds. The shuttle program ended and people thought, "NASA is out of business." There was an effort to let people know we are still exploring and pressing on. We figure it worked very well, what with all those applications. We were shocked but happy.
PopSci: You and your team narrowed that big applicant pool down to about 120 people for interviews at JSC during the autumn. About 40 or 50 people then get a follow-up interview and a medical examination in early 2013. The new class of 10 to 15 astronaut candidates will finally be announced in May. What's it take to get picked?
Ross: It's hard to pick people! It's not one thing. We want a good, diverse group of people because that's where you get the best result. There are some basic academic requirements. We'll typically find folks with good preparation in math, engineering or science. [Read more about the requirements here.] The biggest thing is how applicable and relatable the comparison is we can draw to jobs the applicants have done with what the astronauts have to do when they get here. We also look at outside activities the applicants do to get some idea if they are adaptable to new situations and environments. Everything we do at JSC and the other centers is a team effort, whether a big team or as small as a flight crew. You have to be able to pass NASA flight physical, too.
Bill Tarver: The objective of the medical examination is to not to rule out anyone carelessly. But we need to prove to the Astronaut Office that these people will be able to spend five years' time training and then go to an austere, remote location for the job.
Ross: We factor all those things in. There's absolutely nothing mysterious about this. When we go through the applications, it's people like you and I looking around and interviewing folks and making the best decision.
PopSci: Tell us about the interview process.
Ross: We try to make it just as laid back and informal as we can. Obviously, the person will bring a lot of stress and excitement. There are no trick questions or equations on a board-the interview is about them. We ask them to start back in their high school years and tell us how they got to where they are now. Some folks get pretty comfortable pretty quickly and we have to roll them out the front door before they shut up [laughs]. Some stay nervous the whole time and can barely talk at all. We have a whole spectrum.
PopSci: Any entertaining interview moments come to mind?
Ross: One of my favorites was we had this one person say when we asked why he wanted to be an astronaut: "Well, my grandfather was an astronaut, my father was astronaut, and now I want to be an astronaut." We knew that wasn't true, but we didn't mind a little light-heartedness in the interview.
PopSci: With its old workhorses, the space shuttles, going on display in museums, what spacecraft will NASA train the new astronaut class to operate?
Ross: We're going to train them on the [Russian] Soyuz [capsule] to go to the ISS [International Space Station]. As other things come along, whether a commercial entity or the NASA Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, we will train them for that, too.
These are the first two classes ever selected for "long-duration missions, " which could go back to the Moon, to an asteroid or even to Mars.PopSci: So the 2013 class and the last 2009 class are the first two classes ever selected for "long-duration missions, " which could go back to the Moon, to an asteroid or even to Mars. What's different about selecting astronaut candidates for long-duration missions rather than shorter, closer-to-home voyages?
Bill Tarver: It's that long space mission we're working towards, and we're selecting everyone to that standard because any one of them could be whom the Office wants on that mission. And when you go on these missions, you can't have medical issues. There are a few reasons for that. A simple one is, where are you going to store your pills? Also, pills are only good for one year based on what's called good pharmaceutical practice. If you go to Mars, how are we going to give you drugs that are good for three years? So we're very strict at selection. There are several common conditions that most people would think of as benign, but when we throw in long-duration and a long ways from home, those little things are magnified. Like if you're on a blood pressure medication, for example.