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.

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