Space exploration has changed dramatically since John Glenn orbited the Earth in 1962. Glenn, the first human from any country to go into orbit, was one of 508 astronaut candidates in the NASA Manned Space Program’s inaugural year of 1959. Of those candidates, seven were officially chosen to become astronauts.
In the space program’s early days, most candidates had a military flight background, and every potential astronaut held a degree in mathematics, engineering, or science. While the degree requirements remain in place into the 21st century, civilians have been welcomed as astronaut candidates since 1978.
Despite the inclusion of a much larger pool of candidates, today’s application process is more rigorous than ever, especially in the face of a completely different era of space exploration. Astronauts may further their career at NASA, or they could enter the realm of space tourism.
Modern NASA missions may involve research on the International Space Station or deep space exploration on the Orion spacecraft. And today’s astronauts don’t have to settle for a career at NASA, opting instead to infiltrate the private sector. Private companies involved in space tourism include Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, the pet project of billionaire Richard Branson.
Every 4-5 years, NASA accepts new trainees as astronaut candidates. In 2017, just 12 people were chosen out of a pool of more than 18,000 interested applicants. The candidates, seven men and five women, range in age from 29-42. They include a Massachusetts-based resident physician in emergency medicine and a U.S. Naval Academy cadet who also holds a master’s degree in nuclear engineering.
It’s important to note that not all astronaut candidates are selected to go into space, even after completing years of specialized training.
If you dream of becoming an astronaut one day, it’s best to start informal training as soon as possible. According to Duane Ross, NASA’s Manager for Astronaut Selection and Training, “we’re looking for nice people who can do the job, pass the medical requirements and can be part of a team for a long duration in an isolated environment.”
In the early years of the space program, applicants had to be under 5’ 11” to qualify as candidates. Today, prospective astronauts can measure anywhere from 5’ 2” to 6’ 3”. Candidates must also have 20/20 vision, either naturally or with corrective lenses, and a sitting position blood pressure not more than 140/90.
Of course, physical requirements are just a small part of the astronaut formula. Candidates must also “have a degree in engineering, mathematics, physical sciences or biological sciences with at least three years of professional experience following their degree,” says Ross.
Thus, an early start in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses provides a leg up for potential astronauts.
Some institutions, including Concordia University, take STEM even further, encouraging their masters-level teaching students to eschew the mainstream and focus on a STEAM-based curriculum, where “A” stands for arts. Astronauts need to be well-rounded, and STEAM integrates the arts with science, potentially producing astronaut candidates that stand out from the competition.
In addition to traditional learning channels, the internet provides ample opportunity for astronaut candidate hopefuls to amplify their skill set. You can learn coding, as well as various arts and humanities subjects, for free or on the cheap on various websites. Coding is an essential part of space flight simulation.
And, in April 2018, NASA released a free astronaut training app, in conjunction with Space Nation, a Finnish startup. The challenging app features quizzes, fitness tests, and narrative simulations that mirror common situations an astronaut may encounter.
Modern technological advances have made space exploration more relevant than ever. Whether your goal is to live and work on the International Space Station, enter the private sector of space tourism, or serve as a brand ambassador for NASA’s Manned Space Program, a STEAM-based education is vital.