Sunday, July 23, 2006

Muskegon Air Show and a Ride with the Golden Knights

Spent the day at the Muskegon Air Fair. ( Up at 5:00 and on the road by 6:00. 188 miles to Muskegon. (Planning to fly that on Tuesday for the long cross-country for the instrument rating, but that's another story).

Sublimely-run air show! Mike Murphy was an absolutely outstanding media coordinator. I pulled up to the VIP gate, they were expecting me, they showed me to the parking spot, and Mike was right there in no time with a golf cart and gave me the grant tour. Couldn't have asked for better.

Lots of explosions and pyrotechnics during the bomber flyovers (see above). Made it hell to try to record interviews and get the levels right, but that's okay.

I ran around and interviewed anything in a Nomex jumpsuit that would hold stilllong enough for me to put a mic in its face. All of the military personnel (especially the Canadian Forces C-140 crew and the Wisconsin ANG KC-135 crew) were very forthcoming. A couple of the enlisted guys begged off on interviews, but that's perfectly fine by me. Probably instructions from their public affairs officers. But anyone with lieutenant's bars or better was all talk and they were enthusiactic about their aircraft and their roles.

Biggest thing at the show was the C5 Galaxy. I tried to take pictures of it up close, but you couldn't tell what it was. Tried to take pictures (like the one above) from further away, but you just don't get the scale of the aircraft. It's farging huge. They set up a rock band on the rear ramp toward the end of the day and still had room to play a respectable game of basketball (or golf for that matter) in the remaining volume of the aircraft. They say that it'll carry two M1A1 Abrams tanks or six helicopters and I believe them. Explains why the standard crew on the Galaxy includes three (count 'em: three) load masters.

More very soon. The highlight was a ride in the US Army Golden Knights' Fokker C-31A Friendship. Strapped in right next to the open door, we climbed to 12,500 AGL (about 13,000 MSL) and I had the best seat in the house for the jump. The team left the aircraft en masse just a few feet from me. I'm still startled by the transition from the comparative gloom and stability of the plane to the brightness and fury into which the team exploded out the door. A guy who is standing right next to me one minute is suddenly outside the plane and then he's gone. Really cool.

I was in shorts, but remembered to bring along my fleece vest. Good thing, too, because it was in the 30s Farenheit up there. They warned us once we were on the plane, but it's a little late by then. One of the guys from the local cable access show was very lightly dressed and they lent him a Golden Knights jumpsuit. His camera person got a sweatshirt. Nice guys, all of them. And laid back for a bunch of guys that are about to freefall for almost two miles.

I got two interviews on the plane, but it was noisy as hell, what with the door open and all. I'll see if I can clean up the audio with a filter.

Interview with a Thunderbird

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See Maj. Jeremy Sloane's bio at:

If you’re been listening to Airspeed for awhile, you know that we have a Jones for the F-16 Fighting Falcon that just won’t quit. We also have a high regard for air demonstration teams.

Well, get set for a treat because we went to Battle Creek, Michigan over the Independence Day weekend and entered that special confluence where the F-16 and the air demonstration team come together to produce that wonderful mix of noise, precision, and inspiration that is the United States Air Force Thunderbirds. We were fortunate enough to talk to Maj. Jeremy Sloane shortly after the team landed.

Major Sloane is the operations officer of the Thunderbirds and the squadron’s second in command. He’s in his second season with the squadron and he flies the No. 7 jet. He attended the Air Force Academy and entered the air Force in 1992. Prior to joining the Thunderbirds, Maj. Sloane was an assistant operations officer, instructor pilot, and flight examiner with the F-16C Formal Training Unit, 62nd Fighter Squadron, at Luke air Force Base in Arizona. He has more than 1,800 hours in various configurations of the F-16.

We’ve covered the general information about the Thunderbirds in past episodes, so we thought we’d get a little more in-depth on this one. Not all Thunderbirds have flown the F-16 their whole careers, so we asked about what other aircraft they’ve flown. We also noticed that the team always seems to arrive in tight formation, even on nasty days like the day that they arrived in Battle Creek, and wondered how they flew en route. We asked questions about general aviation and how it compares with military aviation. We also wanted to know how Thunderbird pilots dealt with the high g-forces associated with their demonstrations. And we got answers to all of these questions and more.

Hear the audio on the podcast! Or click here.

[A special shout out on this episode to Dan Lewis!]

Sunday, July 16, 2006

So You Want to Be an Astronaut - Part 3

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This is the third of the three-episode series called “So You Want to Be an Astronaut.” I’ve researched the information that NASA and others have made available about the astronaut selection process and I’m condensing it and presenting it here.

Remember through all of this that I don’t have any particular “in” with NASA. I’ve simply done a bunch of research for you and I’m presenting it to you in a mildly entertaining way. If you happen to hear something that ain’t so, please e-mail me at and I’ll be happy to correct or update the information. In any case, make sure that you listen to the disclaimers in the first episode in the series.

So on to Part 3: Ruminations

Here’s where I go a little far afield and presume to offer advice on how best to present yourself. Lots of this comes directly from NASA publications, some of this comes from literature written by astronauts and professional aerospace writers, and some of it comes from distilled common sense that I think is universal, but bears repeating.

A lot of the selection process is going to be out of your hands. I’m on the recruiting committee for a nearly 400-lawyer law firm and I interview or evaluate more than a hundred candidates each year. We get more than 2,000 applications or expressions of interest every year. I know that we miss some future Clarence Darrows in the process because the process isn’t perfect. But it remains that we only need so many associates and there are always more candidates than we have slots. If I don’t recommend hiring someone because he or she had an off day or we didn’t click, I feel really bad about it, but those are the breaks. I try really hard and the candidates try really hard, but there’s noise in the system that’s unavoidable.

NASA is made up of human beings, just like my firm’s recruiting committee. I’ll bet that NASA misses some Jim Irwins and Sally Rides every time, but the fact of the matter is that there are boatloads of candidates that will make fine astronauts and, in the final analysis, NASA is splitting hairs at the very top the talent pool.

There are a few things in particular that various sources say are helpful. I tried to weed through them and I’m summarizing here the ones that I think make sense and are probably true. But take them with a grain of salt because, while some is direct from the horse’s mouth, some is ribald and smelly third-hand hearsay.

  • Become a pilot. Even if you only want to be a mission specialist. Even a garden-variety private pilot certificate will do, but the higher the certificate and the more your ratings, the better. Remember that mission specialists have to learn how to fly T-38s and you’ll already have proven the that, at the very least, you can handle a single-engine piston airplane.
  • If you’re at that age, join scouting or a similar organization. An overwhelming proportion of astronauts were scouts and lots of the males made Eagle Scout. A little editorializing here: I was an Eagle Scout and was as involved in scouting as you could be in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Camps staff, Jamboree, Philmont, you name it. I’m a captain in the Civil Air Patrol now, and I’m very, very impressed with the cadet program, at least as it’s run in my squadron. For my money, CAP is the better program. Don’t send me hate mail. I’ve seen both and, by all rights, ought to come out on the side of the Boy Scouts. But I think CAP is better. In any case, I think what matters is that, if you’re at that age, you should join a youth organization like the scouts or CAP and ascend as high as you can.
  • Keep your nose clean. Maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll say it. Everybody does stupid things when they’re young. I was surprised at how many of my law school classmates had records of stupid stuff like public urination infractions or open container violations on their records when they filled out their character and fitness questionnaires. Not that I looked. They told me. Serious guys with sterling academic credentials who had just beaten eight or more out of every ten classmates in one of the most rigorous educational processes around, yet they still had these moments of stupidity following them around. As an astronaut applicant, you’re going to be in exalted company with razor-thin margins between those who forward their mail to Houston and those who go home and stay there. You may also have to get a top secret clearance from the US government in order to handle some of the payloads or systems and criminal records are pretty touchy things when they’re thinking about handing you the keys to the room with all of the really important state secrets. Don’t let a stupid thing in college turn into a reason not to put you in a spacecraft. Drink soda pop and hold it until you can get to the rest room.
  • Don’t be extreme in your dress, mannerisms, public persona, or otherwise. Every astronaut is an ambassador of the US space program. Think of NASA as a big, conservative bureaucracy that doesn’t like surprises – and behave like NASA is watching – and you’ll probably do fine. Don’t get tattoos that show outside a tee-shirt and shorts. Better yet, don’t get tattoos at all. And if you’ve got a tongue piercing, at least don’t wear the tongue stud to the interviews. I’m belaboring the point. But put yourself in the shoes of a NASA administrator. You love science and space exploration and want to sustain a manned space program in the face of the Herculean efforts that it takes to get congressional appropriations and despite the fact that most of the public doesn’t understand science very well and is quick to criticize any real or perceived tomfoolery. Now who are you going to select as an astronaut and put out in front of the taxpayers as an example of what they get for their money?
  • We all know that grades in school aren’t fully reflective of our achievements and that “B” or “C” students often outperform “A” students in the real world. But if you were a NASA astronaut selection team member who had to find some way to cull the hundreds of applications down to a manageable number of interviewees, you could be forgiven for leaning on grades and other objective measures in order to make the paper cut a little easier. And the fact of the matter is that “A” students do outperform “B” and “C” students most of the time. Good grades are also an indicator of the ability of a person to internalize information within a set amount of time. Whether the information you internalized in school was worth internalizing or not, it’s never a bad thing to show NASA that you can internalize information. Regardless of what you learned or what value you received out of the exercise, information internalization is a skill that’s important to astronauts. If you thought that getting through the Pilot’s Operating Handbook for a Cessna 172 was a chore, imagine the number of binders of documentation that an STS orbiter has. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking three credit hours of Comparative Haiku during your last semester of your degree in particle physics. Show them the “A” in Haiku. They probably won’t ask you to compose haiku in the interviews, but you might impress someone by having proven that you have learned how to learn. Even if it involves exotic stuff.
  • Get a PhD or other advanced degree. NASA is all about hard science and the more education and training you have, the better your chances.
  • Don’t have anything done to your eyes, like RK or other surgery unless you know for sure that the surgery won’t disqualify you.
  • If NASA doesn’t offer you an astronaut candidate or astronaut slot, but offers you another job, think long and hard before you reject it. You’re probably being told that you’re just on the wrong side of the bubble and that NASA likes you well enough to keep you around in another capacity. In any case, these are smart people and they wouldn’t offer you a job if they hated you. And remember that NASA employees are disproportionately represented in the ranks of those who do get selected. There’s nothing wrong with applying again for the next round of selections and, in fact, several of today’s astronauts made it after they were unsuccessful on their first attempts. And unless your uncle is Burt Rutan, Paul Allen, or Richard Branson, NASA is probably the only game in town in terms of getting you out of the atmosphere. Consider it an inside track, work your hiney off, and keep your application updated.
That’s it for the “So You Want to Be an Astronaut” series.

If you take away one thing from this series, it should probably be this: You don’t achieve the big things without a long-range plan and a lot of hard slogging. You have to take risks and be willing to go up against seemingly impossible odds. It’s a longshot that requires a fabulous ante in terms of commitment and endurance just to get a seat at the table. But the surest way to not get selected is to not try. And even if you fall short, I’d hang out with, work with, and fly with, the people who just missed astronaut candidate selection any day of the week. You will still have made of yourself the best human being you can be and that ain’t bad.

This last comment is for anyone who’s in a position to pursue a slot as an astronaut. If you’ve got the smarts and the physical characteristics and the time to make this a possibility, consider making a commitment and going after it. I mean get out some paper and a writing utensil and make yourself a checklist. Most of the information you need is in these podcast episodes and there’s lots more information on the web, whether from NASA or other sources. Then follow the checklist. If something changes, go ahead and modify the checklist, but only if it’s necessary to get you to that goal. Make it your highest priority and do at least one specific thing each week toward the goal.

I remember working at a bank in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1993. My friend Sam bought me a beer and explained in urgent terms that I should go become a lawyer. I really thought about it and decided that I was willing to make the sacrifices to do it. It took a relocation, a job change, five years, some all-nighters, and thousands of hours of effort, but I did it. It wouldn’t have happened unless I had committed to it and followed up tenaciously.

Same thing with becoming a pilot. I remember looking at my barber’s copy of Flying magazine about nine years ago and thinking to myself that flying was way too expensive and difficult for me to consider. Then my friend John walked into my office in 2000 and suggested that we go to flight school together and learn how to fly. Really do it. That triggered a reexamination of my situation and a realignment of priorities. We made plans and, in 2004, I got my ticket.

I’m no astronaut. I’ve got a bum shoulder and my education is all in social sciences, finance, and law. Plus I’m staring 40 in the face.

But, if you’ve got the brains and the body, I am walking into your office, or your living room, or your classroom right now, just like John did, and I’m doing the virtual equivalent of buying you a beer or your other choice of beverage just like Sam did, and I’m saying: Gee, have you ever thought of becoming an astronaut?

Make a checklist. Follow it. Check off the milestones as you achieve them. And maybe one day you’ll be able to attach that checklist to the wrist of your space suit just before you open the hatch and step out onto the surface of Mars.

And what a fine thing that would be.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Photos from the Battle Creek Airshow - Part 1

I'm still producing the shows from the audio I garnered at Battle Creek over the Independence Day holiday, but here's some eye candy to tide you over.

My photographer and cousin, Tim Reed, is a freaking genius. Above is a shot of Gene Soucy's Show Cat (a heavily-modified Grumman G-164A with a Pratt & Whitney R1340-series engine) in aerobatic flight on July 3. It was overcast at 10,000 fet or below and spitting rain and mist, but Gene was out there flying his ass off for us. Tim processed the sky a little using Photoshop, but this is otherwise pretty much what it looked like.

The Show Cat makes some of the sweetest noise you've ever heard and, because Gene's performance is mostly at or below 1,500 feet AGL, you can really see what's going on., even if you're not right up against the snow fence.

We'll feature an interview with Gene and with Theresa Stokes, the wingwalker, on a future edition of the podcast. In the meantime, you can find out more about Gene and Theresa at and you can contact photographer par excellence Tim Reed at

Image (c) 2006 Timothy Reed. All rights reserved. Presented by permission.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

So You Want to Be an Astronaut - Part 2

Subscribe to Airspeed using iTunes, visit us at, or use the following RSS feed.

This is the second of the three-episode series called “So You Want to Be an Astronaut.” I’ve researched the information that NASA and others have made available about the astronaut selection process and I’m condensing it and presenting it here.

Remember through all of this that I don’t have any particular “in” with NASA. I’ve simply done a bunch of research for you and I’m presenting it to you in a mildly entertaining way. If you happen to hear something that ain’t so, please e-mail me at and I’ll be happy to correct or update the information. In any case, make sure that you listen to the disclaimers in the first episode in the series.

So on to Part 2: Selection

Once you apply to become an astronaut, NASA determines whether you have the qualities that qualify you as an astronaut on paper. Panels of experts in the relevant disciplines screen the applications to determine who’s qualified and who gets to be a finalist.

Provided that you make the “paper cut” and are selected as a finalist, you and several hundred other applicants get interviewed, poked, and prodded in person. It’s a week-long process that includes personal interviews, medical evaluations, and orientations. In addition to your physical status, NASA reviews your education, training, experience, and any other qualifications that might make you a valuable astronaut. Remember that you have several hundred candidates milling around down there and each of you already qualifies on paper. The real selection is going to happen in the personal interviews.

If you’re selected as an astronaut candidate, you go to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and begin a one- to two-year training and evaluation program.

Astronaut candidates receive training in space vehicle systems, math, geology, meteorology, navigation, oceanography, orbital mechanics, astronomy, physics, and materials science, in addition to other technical subjects. They also train in land and sea survival techniques, scuba diving, and space suits.

Every astronaut candidate gets tossed in the pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes during the first month of training and must swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool dressed that way. You can freestyle, breast stroke, or sidestroke and there’s no time limit. You also have to tread water for ten minutes.

You have to go through the military water survival training syllabus before you begin flight training. I get the sense that that includes the simulated inverted cockpit escape like the one in An Officer and a Gentleman. That gives me the willies just thinking about it, although it’s probably worth it.

You also have to become SCUBA qualified in order to do your extravehicular training because the primary extravehicular practical training facility is a great big pool where neutral buoyancy simulates the zero-gee work environment.

NASA also trains candidates in high- and low- atmospheric pressure environments (think Officer and a Gentleman again).

Candidates also get zero-gee exposure in an aircraft flying parabolas designed to give about 20 seconds at a time of weightlessness. New candidates are trained in a McDonnell Douglas C-9, the successor to the perennial favorite Boeing KC-135 Vomit Comet was retired in 2004.

Pilots get 15 hours or more a month of proficiency flying in the Northrop T-38 Talon, a two-seat jet trainer. Pilots destined for STS missions fly one of four Shuttle Training Aircraft or “STAs,” which are Gulfstream II business jets modified to perform like the STS orbiter in the landing phase. NASA says that pilots assigned to this duty get about 100 hours in the STAs, which is equivalent to 600 orbiter landings. The implied landing every 10 minutes seems a little quick to me, but maybe not. The STAs come in with thrust reversers on and the gear down to get the 17-20 degree glideslope and the brick-like handling qualities of the orbiter right. Bear in mind that most commercial and general aviation aircraft land using a three-degree glideslope.

Mission Specialists also get to fly a minimum of four hours a month, but it’s always dual training. Still, time in a T-38 is time in a T-38.

If, at the end of the training program, NASA selects you, you’re an astronaut.

But the training doesn’t stop there. Much of the astronaut training is a continuation of the training that started in the astronaut candidate program. You augment a lot of your training by training in both the single systems trainers (which, as the name implies, simulate discreet systems or system groups) and you train in the Shuttle Mission Simulators.

You may train at the Sonny Carter Training Facility or the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. You’ll almost certainly train on the full-scale mockups of the spacecraft that are current at that time, as well as on mockups of the subjects of your mission, such as satellites and other research platforms. A lot of scientists on the ground are going to depend on you to be their eyes, ears, and hands. They’ll have perhaps ten years tied up in that little drawer or compartment in the payload area and they’re going to depend on mission specialists and others to make sure that their experiments go perfectly.

Civilian astronauts are government employees and are classified for pay as GS-11 through GS-14, which equates to an approximate range of $56,000to $128,000, assuming the Houston, Texas Locality Pay Area (about 26% greater than the base level for those grades in other areas). You placement in the pay grades depends on your education, experience, and other factors. Military personnel continue with their military pay and are simply detailed to NASA. Civilians who are selected as astronauts are expected to stay in the program for five years. Military astronauts are assigned a specific tour of duty with the space program.

That’s it for Part 2 of “So You Want to Be an Astronaut.” In the next episode, I’ll go into some ruminations on the selection process and pass on some ideas that seem to make sense if you’re looking for an advantage in the selection process.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Battle Creek Airshow - Days 3 and 4

Just back from days three and four of the five days at the Battle Creek Field of Flight Airshow. As you can see from the picture,lots of cool stuff happened. For one thing, I got a balloon flight, courtesy of Dave Emmert in Cloud Nine. I also met and interviewed a Thunderbird, a Snowbird, and several others. Lots of editing and production to do, but we'll get the material up and on both the podcast and the blog as soon as we can.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Battle Creek Airshow - Day 1

Airshow update:

I hit the Battle Creek Balloon Championships and Field of Flight Airshow on Friday. See for background.

Wandered the field a little andscoped out the concessions. Good-looking barbecue for starters. Turkey legs, ribs, chicken - you name it. And the usual assortment of elephant ears, lemonade, sausage, and other stuff.

And the Budweiser Clydesdales. They were blaring the theme music the whole time. I've still got that damned music in my head.

Here comes the king, here comes the big number one . . . I can only imagine how annoying that would have to be if you toured with the Clydes. Maybe you become impervisous to it after awhile. Beautiful horses, though. And well-trained.

I saw my first balloon launch. Rotten photo opportunity because it was impossible to get up-sun of the balloons. So they were either harshly side-lit or blacked out against a too-bright sky.

Plus, it was hazy. Actually a good thing, that haze. It means that there's not a lot of lifting action and that the atmosphere is pretty stable. If it were more clear, it would mean that the atmosphere was churning around enough to more the particulate matter around.

But on to the good stuff.

This is a powered pilot's commentary. I can't help but wonder about a flying apparatus where you can take your hands off of the controls for 20 minutes at a time without dying. It's probably very cool in that you have to land the thing without as much control of where you're going to land it. That takes some talent. I also understand that the balloonists had banners that they were supposed to drop on Xs marked in town near schools. I would imagine that then jockeyed around for altitude trying to find layers of wind that would take them over the places where they wanted to be. I also understand that the football-shaped balloons are easier to control, although I have no idea how one would control direction even with the oblong shape.

But here's the thing that captivated me. They launched 44 balloons in about a half hour. As many as a dozen or so were aloft within a 1,000-foot cube at one point. It seemed (and was) a lot more three-dimensional than powered flight feels. When you fill a three-dimensional space with a lot of balloons, the whole scene just looks a lot more three-dimensional. The scene out the window of an airplane looks pretty flat in comparison.

Maybe it's the proximity. Airplanes move faster and are harder to see so we keep ourselves separated (or ATC separates us). Heck, a few of the balloone collided. The commentator (now being very informtive) explained that this is "kissing." And it's no big deal. I saw a guy drag his gondola right up the side of another balloon. Apparently, it's no great shakes.

You don't want to ascend into someone so you collide with the top of your ballon. Apparently, they have velcro-attached top panels designed for quick release upon landing and you could inadvertently rip that open while aloft. It's apparently not 100% fatal because one of the pilots that went up on Fruday had had that happen. But heaving for the planet with a rapidly emptying and floppy envelope above you has got to suck.

Anyway, I'll try to interview one or two of the balloon pilots and might do a podcast on it.

I'm heading back tomorrow and will be there July 2-3. The Thunderbirds arrive tomorrow and many of the other performers should be there as well.

I'm doing some more homework tonight so I can be ready. I get the sense that I may have a big group of folks around and that I may not have enough time to corner everbody serratim. So I'll see if anybody's going to object if I hang around on the ramp looking for interviews. Should be fun regardless.

So You Want to Be an Astronaut - Part 1

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If you’ve been listening to Airspeed for very long, you know that I have a huge thing for the space program. Although we cover a lot about airplanes and flight training here, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge the obvious. Being an astronaut is being at the pinnacle of aviation and aerospace. Ever since NASA selected the first seven astronauts, these men and women have captured our imaginations and been examples of what humans can achieve. They’re not the only examples, mind you, but they’re high on the list and they deserve most or all of the admiration that goes their way.

Everybody knows, or should know, the names Cooper, Grissom, Slayton, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, and Shepherd. Many know the names Ride, Collins, and Lininger.

But to you know Smith and Garcia? Bob Smith and Carmen Garcia are middle school students. Bob lives in a suburb in the Midwest and likes to study weather and computers. Carmen lives in New Jersey and loves chemistry and animals. Both take their studies seriously. Bob’s mom took him to the Very Large Array in New Mexico last summer and Carmen’s dad is a pilot for a regional airline. They’ll become good friends when they’re assigned to a long-duration flight on the next-generation International Space Station.

Okay, I made up both Bob and Carmen, but the fact of the matter is that this is how it starts. At some point, whether in middle school, high school, college, or whenever, a person gets bitten by the space bug.

But here’s the thing. Most people have no idea how one gets to be an astronaut. And it’s possible and even likely that many potential astronaut candidates – even ones who might be better astronauts than many already in the astronaut corps – never even apply because they don’t know the requirements or because they make a decision along the way that, though small in and of itself, makes them ineligible.

So I thought, hey! Let’s do a show or two about what it takes to become an astronaut. NASA’s technical requirements, some characteristics that seem to give a person a better or worse chance of selection, and whatever else I can dig up.

So here it is. Part 1 of a three-part series I’m calling “So You Want to Be an Astronaut.” Let’s call this episode “Qualifications.”

This information is based on the best information I could find on the net. NASA itself doesn’t appear to have a lot of information out there. Most of the links to materials like the astronaut application are dead at the moment. Some of the information dates back to 1997. And that’s probably reasonable, considering that the shuttle fleet is probably going to be retired soon and NASA is probably working on coming up with the next set of requirements for astronauts based on what astronauts will need to know or be able to do for the next generation of space vehicles and missions.

This is all based primarily on the criteria that NASA has used for the STS-era (that’s Space Transportation System or “Space Shuttle” era). I can’t imagine that the criteria are going to change much. NASA has been at this awhile and probably has a pretty good idea of what makes a good astronaut regardless of the equipment or mission.

If you’re listening with the idea that you might want to become an astronaut (and if you are, you’re the primary audience here) bear in mind that the criteria may already have changed and, if you’re planning to apply ten or fifteen years down the road, things will probably be even more different. Don’t rely entirely on this information. If you’re going to make life-changing decisions because you want to be an astronaut, do your own research and, better yet, contact NASA yourself. Don’t go changin’ to try and please me.

Remember through all of this that I don’t have any particular “in” with NASA. I’ve simply done a bunch of research for you and I’m presenting it to you in a mildly entertaining way. If you happen to hear something that ain’t so, please e-mail me at and I’ll be happy to correct or update the information.

Okay, on with the information.

NASA brings in two kinds of astronauts that we care about. Note that we’re not going to talk about payload specialists here because those folks come through a path that is largely dictated by the contracting foreign government or foreign or domestic institution.

Most astronauts come in on either the commander/pilot track (I’ll refer to those folks simply as “pilots”) or the mission specialist track. Pilots fly spacecraft. Those that are commanders have responsibility for the entire mission, as actually doing stick and rudder operations. Pilots may also help with deployment of satellites and other operations. Mission specialists work with the pilots, but primarily handle systems operations, conduct experiments, and do most of the meat-and-potatoes scientific work on the spacecraft.

Physically, pilots have to be able to pass a NASA Class I space physical, the requirements for which are very similar to those of an FAA Class I medical certificate. Among the requirements are vision of 20/70 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, in each eye. Blood pressure can’t be higher than 140/90 in a seated position. Height has to be between 64 and 76 inches. I guess you have to be tall enough to reach the pedals and short enough so that the instrument panel of a T-38 won’t take off your kneecaps if you have to eject.

Mission specialists have to be able to pass a NASA Class II space physical, which, again, is similar to the equivalent class of FAA medical certificate. Vision has to be at least 20/200, correctible to 20/20 in each eye. The maximum blood pressure is the same, but your height can be between 58.5 inches and 76 inches. Apparently, the pedals in the shuttle are further away than they are in the T-38.

Lest you think that NASA will take expert pilots who don’t know much other than aviation, there are stringent educational requirements. An astronaut candidate must have at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical sciences, or mathematics. Be careful how you pick your major. Degrees in “technology” (like Engineering Technology and Aviation Technology) don’t qualify. Certain kinds of psychology don’t work either.

Mission specialists also have to have three years of related, progressively responsible professional experience after the bachelor’s degree. Advanced degrees are preferred, and NASA lets you substitute a master’s degree for one year of experience and a doctorate covers all three years.

Pilots have to have at least a thousand hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft and they really prefer flight test experience. Remember that the earliest astronauts were all test pilots and NASA has really fond memories of those guys.

You must also be a US citizen.

Civilians apply directly to NASA. NASA takes applications on a continuous basis and then selects new astronaut candidates from the pool of applications every couple of years or so. Military applicants apply through their branch of the armed services and that branch makes recommendations to NASA of the candidates that apply.

That’s it for Part 1 of “So You Want to Be an Astronaut.” In the next episode, we’ll cover the selection process and the astronaut candidate training and evaluations.