Watch Us Epically Fail NASA’s Astronaut Test
Always dreamed of going to space? Yeah, me too. With NASA now mid-hunt for their next class of astronauts, WIRED decided to take a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX to get a sneak peak of what these future space explorers would go through if they’re lucky enough to make the cut.
It turns out, however, that becoming an astronaut is harder than ever. NASA was accepting applications between December 14, 2015 and February 18 of this year, and in that time they received a whopping 18,300 submissions. That’s more than 10,000 more than the previous record, which was set in 1978, and roughly three times as many as the last call a few years ago.
So how many of those wannabe astronauts have a real shot? While NASA doesn’t yet know how many of the 18,300 current applications are viable, the agency told us that the last time around, about 4,800 applications met the basic requirements, about 79 percent. If that trend holds, roughly 14,400 people will make it to the next round of evaluations this year. (Some people, says Anne Roemer, NASA’s manager of astronaut selection, apply just to get the rejection letter—and then they frame it. Wish I had thought of that.)
First, an applicant has to meet some minimum qualifications—a college degree in a STEM discipline, at least three years of field experience, basic height and weight restrictions. Every application cycle, Roemer says, NASA gets people who don’t meet the education requirements but beg and plead to be considered anyway. Don’t hold your breath: I tried, but apparently being a science and tech writer can’t be substituted for actual course work.
After meeting those basic requirements, the panel—composed mostly of flown astronauts—reviews candidates for things like education quality, mission-applicable experience, and teamwork and leadership skills. “We’re looking for folks who aren’t just good at one thing,” says Roemer. “We look at the full package: Not just what work experience do they have and what education, but what are their hobbies, adventures, and things of that nature.” That winnows the group to about 500 candidates.
From there NASA does reference checks, and the astronaut selection board picks about 120 candidates for interviews. That’s kind of your standard job interview, where they try to get to know you and rate you on astronaut-y skills. Fifty or 60 candidates will get a second interview—and a weeklong physical evaluation. Which is, shall we say, intense. A team of doctors from the Flight Medicine Clinic assesses candidates’ general health, but also whether or not they could pass the Astronaut Long-Duration Spaceflight Physical. Of those 60, only eight to 14 will go on to become astronauts.
Those lucky ducks will go through at least two years of training in spacewalking, spacecraft systems, the Russian language, and more. If they manage to complete that training, they’ll work some technical duties within the Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center. And finally, gloriously, NASA will assign them to a mission aboard either the ISS, the NASA’s Orion spacecraft, Space X’s Crew Dragon, or Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner—assuming those last two are ready for primetime.
If you’re not one of the spacefaring few, don’t despair. “Being selected as an astronaut is a very competitive process,” says Roemer. “So the number one piece of advice we always give to folks is we want them to pursue a career they’re passionate about.” Still, Roemer encourages everyone to apply. Just because they aren’t looking for artists or writers on this mission, next time around, who knows? Maybe they’ll be looking for the next voice of the space program; a storyteller to make the stars accessible to the people back on Earth and inspire the next generation of scientists.
But if that’s the case, don’t even bother applying. That job is mine, damn it.