Leroy Chiao is the CEO and co-founder of OneOrbit LLC, a motivational, training and education company. He served as a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005 and flew four missions into space aboard three space shuttles and once as the co-pilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. On that flight, he served as the commander of Expedition 10, a 6.5-month mission. Chiao has performed six spacewalks, in both U.S. and Russian spacesuits, and has logged 229 days in space. You can read more of Chiao’s Expert Voices Op-Eds and film reviews on his Space.com landing page.
Recently, NASA announced its newest class of astronauts: Twelve were chosen from a record-setting pool of over 18,000 applicants to form Group 22. As you would imagine, these 12 are quite accomplished and talented individuals, who are walking on air. It brought me back to my own selection as part of Group 13 back in 1990. What an exciting time!
I had wanted to be an astronaut from a young age. Growing up in the 1960s, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by airplanes and rockets. I followed the early missions when I was old enough to understand space exploration, but it was the Apollo 11 moon landing that captured my imagination and started my dream of becoming an astronaut myself. I remember looking at the moon as an 8-year-old and marveling that there were two astronauts in a lander on the surface, getting ready to go out and actually walk. That settled it for me: I knew I was going to at least try to become an astronaut. I wanted to be like those guys.
Studying engineering was natural for me; I was always interested in technology and building things. As a university sophomore, I signed up for the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) intending to become a fighter pilot and, hopefully, an astronaut. Just a few months in, however, I discovered that my left eye had slipped a bit from 20/20. My military pilot plans were dashed. I had not yet reached the point of becoming a contract cadet, so I was able to leave AFROTC, but it was disappointing, to say the least. I did go on to be a pilot, and have been flying airplanes now for almost 33 years.
Just a year later, the Space Shuttle Columbia made its maiden flight. I watched the television intently as Columbia executed a perfect landing in the Mojave Desert. The space shuttle program re-opened the gates for me, since NASA had begun to select more civilian scientists and engineers as astronauts. I was back in the game!
After earning my university degrees and working for a few years, I wrote to NASA to request an application package. Seven months later, after I applied, I received a call inviting me to Houston to interview. That itself was thrilling; it meant that I was one of the 100 or so who would be interviewed, chosen from several thousand applicants. Several months afterward, I received that life-changing phone call, and reported for duty just six months later.
Most NASA astronaut class photos have been shot in the studio. These new astronaut candidates had their photo taken in front of a NASA T-38 jet, just as we did 27 years earlier. That’s what first caught my eye when they were announced. Over the next two years, these 12 new astronaut candidates (ASCANS) will train together as a class. Yes, they really are called ASCANS, just like it’s spelled, with a bit more than a hint of derision. That is how it’s always been.
As with any new group of highly skilled and motivated individuals from different backgrounds, strong friendships and rivalries will form among the new astronaut class. They will be expected to do things as pledges in this fraternity that they perhaps didn’t anticipate. They will perform skits for the astronaut office holiday parties, plan the astronaut reunions and do more menial and grunt work than they might have imagined. It’s all part of the process and experience, the rite of passage.
The ASCANS will learn about the International Space Station and its systems, participate in simulator sessions and train on robotics and spacewalks, called extravehicular activity (EVA). They will learn the Russian language, and work out in the astronaut gym. They will travel as a class to the NASA field centers and be trained in aircraft egress, as well as land and sea survival. They will fly T-38 jets — civilians are trained to be co-pilots — and go out on public affairs trips to talk to the public about NASA and space exploration.
After their initial training, the ASCANS will shed this somewhat ignoble title, graduate and receive their silver astronaut pins. It will be a great day for them. They will wear this pin exactly once, as they move one step closer to realizing the dream of wearing one made of gold.