Last-minute tips on your application to #BeAnAstronaut

The moment is finally here. After months of obsessing over our applications to “#BeAnAstronaut,” we will finally be released from worry by the closing of the announcement! Rumor has it that over 8,000 people have already applied to be a member of the NASA Astronaut Class of 2017. If NASA selects 8 Astronaut Candidates (like last time) then we need to show off what makes us 1 in 1,000+. How does someone make the cut between “Highly Qualified” and “Better luck next time”? Since we still have a day or so to fiddle with our resumes, here are a few tips for folks like me who just can’t stop wondering if their application could use a last, little bit of polish.

DISCLAIMER: I am neither an expert nor a member of the Astronaut Selection Board; this is my first time applying, and at least one astronaut applied fifteen times before being selected. Over the years, however, my friends at NASA and I have had many conversations with folks related to astronaut selection. This is a compilation of the advice garnered in these many conversations – which I am passing along to help my fellow astronaut hopefuls reach for the stars! (Yes, I’m cheesy, too.)

The Number One Question any reviewer asks: Would I want to go to space with this person? Astronauts spend days in small capsules with their crewmates. The Space Station, though it has the volume of a 3-bedroom home, is still a relatively small, confined space isolated from the rest of humanity. Evaluating whether an applicant would fare well in these circumstances – whether they’d get along with their crew, be productive, stay calm under stress, etc. – is understandably a key consideration in the selection of astronauts.

Answering that question via the current application system requires you to be a bit of a resume Jedi. If you’re reading this you probably already know that the application itself is technically quite simple, which is a big change from the astronaut applications of old. There’s no personal statement, no cover letter, no “why I want to be an astronaut” section. It is, simply, your resume in the standard USA Jobs format. In this case, though, you’re applying for a highly unique job (understatement of the century) and it’s important to keep yourself from being confined to the “resume box.” Astronauts need a broad skillset, and some of the important skills – like how good you are at fixing things – may be hard to communicate via a traditional resume. As astronaut Cady Coleman told me, “If you think it’s important [to answering the questions below], find a place to highlight it,” even if you have to be creative with your resume’s content.

In addition to the “big question” above, here are some specific questions a potential reviewer might ask as they look over your application:

  1. Does this person have “operational” experience? Do they have experience working in isolation?
  2. How well does their work experience relate to being an astronaut?
  3. Can this person adapt to new situations and environments? Space is a new environment for most people. (Understatement of the century #2.)
  4. Is this person handy? Can they fix things and follow directions? As a former ISS flight controller, I know from experience that astronauts spend a lot of time fixing things – including the space toilet. They also have to follow procedures to correctly run research experiments, so following directions well is key!
  5. Can this person learn new languages?
  6. Is this person a team player? As Duane Ross said in his interview with Popular Science, “Everything we do at JSC and the other centers is a team effort, whether a big team or as small as a flight crew.”
  7. Do they have the ability to push themselves physically and mentally?
  8. Would this person be a good representative of NASA?

You’re off to a good start if your application addresses these questions. I hope that sharing this compiled advice helps you put your best foot forward and, perhaps, end up on a spaceship someday. Good luck!

Now, off to proofread my application one more time…

__________________

In addition to personal communications, this post also draws from two sources:

[1] Hadhazy, A. “Popular Science Q&A: How NASA Selected the 2013 Class of Astronauts” Popular Science. 31 Jan. 2013

[2] Anderson, C. C. (2015). The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut. U of Nebraska Press.

 

Advertisements

6 Comments

  1. At this point, I just have to wonder, as a taxpaying citizen, whether human spaceflight is completely pointless. In the 70’s and 80s we thought we would be going to the planets (too expensive), manufacturing and mining in space (not economical), colonizing space (populations turn out to be sel-limiting), and starting for other stars (permanently way, way too far).

    Sure we have a few spinoffs and a few kids getting interested in STEM, but is that worth the million dollars a minute or something it costs? Why should we NOT spend that on, say, preventing black kids from getting mudered in the streets?

    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s a reasonable question – and one we should ask about every expense of our tax dollars. You may never be satisfied if you seek only economic return from human space exploration, because on some level human spaceflight is about more than economic return: it’s about pushing the limits of human knowledge and experience. Why do people explore the deepest caves on Earth? Why do we climb the highest mountains? You never really know what you will get out of such a journey, but where would we be as a species if we never pushed ourselves to explore the unknown?
      There are significant spinoffs, too, that many people don’t realize come from NASA – for instance, the up-swept winglets you see on the ends of an aircraft’s wings, which improve the fuel efficiency of passenger airliners, are a NASA spinoff that benefits thousands of Americans every day. If you’re interested in direct return from human spaceflight, consider the fundamental knowledge of the Moon gained from the Apollo program: before astronauts visited and used their intuition to collect the right samples, geologists weren’t even sure how the Moon formed. Since being placed in orbit and subsequently repaired by humans, the Hubble Space Telescope has led to thousands of research publications on the fundamental nature of the universe. The spinoffs are significant and widespread.
      You may also be surprised by how small a portion of the federal budget NASA receives: less than 0.5%. Of that, human spaceflight is only a portion: the cost boils down to roughly $11 per American per year. Divvying up the total cost of FY2015 ISS operations yields about $6,000/minute (about 0.002 cents per minute for you personally); still a substantial investment, but 3 orders of magnitude less than a million dollars per minute.
      There are always going to be a variety of worthy causes deserving of American taxpayers’ dollars, and we shouldn’t lose sight of important issues here on Earth. While we address them, though, I think it’s important to keep looking upward and outward, as well, and to continue pushing the frontiers of human knowledge.

  2. You’re obviously passionate about your work. You’ve expertly summarized Houston’s talking points on the issue. But why can’t JPL do all this with probes without blasting human bodies into the sky? Why is 200 lbs of sensors and telemetry equipment inferior to 200 lbs of meat?

    Public support for manned spaceflight was long predicated on the dream that every little kid COULD grow up to be an astronaut. Heck, that was only one step up from fighter pilot!. But that dream is dead. We require so few astronauts that it’s effectively only a dream for the super-elite (one of whom may very well be you). The software nerds put Neil Armstrong up against a wall and shot him, and now we’re left with “Eugene” Cernan, which is a poor trade.

  3. Another good question! I’m not sure what your beef is with Gene Cernan, but I think I catch your drift about rover capabilities.
    I think that humans and robots both have their place in the process of exploration. Given enough time, robots probably COULD do most of the things humans would do – but that’s the key issue: time. Opportunity has been roving Mars for 12 years and has covered just over 26 miles (the recently-celebrated rover marathon completion), while the Apollo 17 lunar rover (with Gene Cernan aboard) covered nearly that distance in about 4.5 hours. From a scientific standpoint, the pace of exploration as conducted by rovers (as we can currently design and fly them, anyway) is vastly slower than that of humans on the surface.
    Another related benefit of human presence is the ability to scan and assess a large area rapidly. For example, during one of the Apollo 15 drives, commander Dave Scott glimpsed a “geologically interesting” rock and feigned a seatbelt malfunction in order to buy himself time to hop off the rover and collect it despite the mission plan. The “seatbelt basalt” turned out to be from magma generated hundreds of kilometers below the surface of the Moon, yielding fundamental information on the deep lunar interior. The same crew was able to recognize and return a crystalline piece of the lunar crust. Humans on the surface of a body can use their intuition to survey and analyze large areas in seconds, zeroing in on key scientific observations in moments.
    Related to this is the corollary to human exploration: samples come back with the astronauts. The breadth and depth of analyses performed on returned samples is orders of magnitude more comprehensive than those that can be done with a rover’s inherently limited instrument suite, allowing us to fully investigate the geologic secrets of returned rocks. Just ask anyone who studies Venus, where the Soviet Union landed several probes, each with geochemical analysis suites… yet our geochemical knowledge of the planet barely exceeds “the surface is basalt.”
    All that being said, though, I think robotic mission certainly have a place in environments that are too dangerous or difficult for humans to access – hence, rovers and landers on Mars and Venus well before human exploration becomes practical, and “Dexter” on the ISS performs maintenance outside the Station so that astronauts don’t have to spacewalk as often. A human-robotic partnership is certainly beneficial to all involved.
    Finally, I think the idea that “everyone can be an astronaut” took a distinct hiatus after the Challenger tragedy in 1986. However, commercial entities like Blue Origin plan to launch private citizens on suborbital research flights in the not-too-distant future, so widespread opportunity to be an astronaut may soon be reality!

  4. I can think of no way to disagree with anything you just said. We need more humans in space, not fewer, and the longer missions the better. Plus the video will be fantastic. Sign me up to chip in my $67.50 or whatever.

    We just need tweet-length pitch to sell it to the public. Something like “Listen Joe Sixpack, there are probably mega-shark creatures in the Europan subsurface oceans, but we need boots on the ground to find them. And once they do, the news will become the most important thing that ever heard. Bankroll this now so you get to see it before you die”

    Anyway, if you and a couple of your pals get on an interplanetary crew then we’ll have some real heroes again. Good Luck!

  5. Thanks for asking good questions! I appreciate the practice at putting words to the rationale.
    This sounds like an excellent contest for NASA to run. I bet they could come up with a good hashtag. #WhySpace #BootsOnMars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s