I signed up to be a NASA astronaut. You can too

NASA astronauts Victor Glover, pilot of Artemis II, and Christina Hammock Koch, mission specialist of Artemis II, participate in a NASA news conference Aug. 8, 2023, at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit – NASA/Kim Shiflett

RI recently applied to become an astronaut. I’d like to say that my chances of being accepted are not zero, but below zero is more like it. Not many people who remember Sputnik – which, for the record, was launched on October 4, 1957 – meet the age limit to climb onto a rocket. Still, I filled out the nine-page form and submitted it, even though I have no doubt I’ll end up in the cosmic slush.

However, you may have more luck. NASA is hiring; on March 5, it opened its doors to a new class of about a dozen astronauts and will accept applications until April 2, although it is considering extending the deadline to accommodate more applicants. Salary is $152,258; the base is the Johnson Space Center in Houston – with work trips to space. But it’s best to prepare yourself for disappointment. NASA hires a new class of astronauts about every four years, and in 2015, a peak year, there were about 12,000 applicants — a number that could be matched this time as well, says April Jordan, NASA’s astronaut hiring manager.

“There were definitely some things going on in the world at the time, like The Martian come out,” says Jordan. The rise of the private space sector and the start of NASA’s Artemis moon program could boost things in a similar way in 2024. Not all applications in 2015 were entirely serious, and things are likely to be the same now. “We actually have a fair number of people who sign up just to get the rejection,” Jordan says. Still, countless thousands will sign up in earnest, and NASA is making a special effort in this round of recruitment to emphasize that it is becoming increasingly egalitarian, increasingly receptive to astronaut candidates who don’t fit into the narrow hunter-jock universe. profile.

In 1958, when America sent out its first class of seven astronauts, applicants had to meet a stringent set of standards, including military test pilots with more than 1,500 hours in the cockpit; have a degree in natural sciences or technology; no more than five feet long, to fit the small Mercury spacecraft, and more. Then there were the unspoken criteria: the people selected were all white, all men, all family men.

Those walls have been falling for a long time, but only slowly: After more than 65 years in the space game, NASA has flown 329 astronauts, 54 of them women. The numbers are even lower for Black Americans, with only 17 traveling to space. Yet progress is accelerating. In 2020, the space agency announced the 18 astronauts it had selected for the Artemis moon missions it plans to begin next year; nine of the crew members are women and ten are people of color, three are women of color and two are Hispanic.

“More than a decade ago, NASA decided that equality and inclusivity would be part of its core values,” said Victor Glover, a Navy aviator and Iraq War veteran who was selected in the 2013 astronaut class and spent six months aboard International Space. Station in 2020 and 2021. He will also be the first Black person to visit the moon when he and the other three members of the Artemis II crew make a trip around the moon in September 2025. The team also includes Christina Koch, the first woman assigned to a lunar mission. “[NASA’s] decisions have led to us having an astronaut office that looks a lot like America,” says Glover. “You could reach in and grab four people, and they would look like our crew.”

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NASA’s astronaut application is in many ways like most job applications, with sections for education, work experience, references and more. Military service is also included, but is no longer the absolute criterion it once was. The astronauts who pass the current selection process will not only be demographically diverse, but also professionally diverse. Firefighters and other first responders are especially valued by NASA in the 21st century. “These are people who end up in dangerous situations,” says Jordan. Former collegiate athletes are also attractive because of what Jordan calls their “team skills.” Still, the application leaves no room for misunderstanding about how specific the talents required for an astronaut gig are.

“The duties of this position require moderate to vigorous physical exertion, including walking, standing, heavy lifting, crouching, crawling, and exposure to inclement weather. Are you willing to perform strenuous physical activities as part of your duties?” reads part of the form.

“Astronaut candidates and astronauts live, work and train for extended periods of time in remote, isolated, small or confined spaces,” reads another. “Are you willing to spend extended periods of time in remote, isolated, small or confined spaces?”

And then there is the one who can ensure that many candidacies are canceled: “[Astronaut] training requires a lot of travel…which family members can’t always come with. Are you willing to participate in longer trips and periods away from home?”

For Glover, who is married and the father of four girls, that question required a lot of thinking. “There is a myth of work-life balance,” he says. “I don’t use that term. This job will change your life and your relationships forever. Some astronauts have spouses and children, some don’t, but you still have parents, siblings and a whole life to live.”

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Perhaps the most demanding part of the vetting process is the in-person interview with the NASA selection board, a committee of 10 to 12 people made up mostly of astronauts, as well as senior NASA officials such as flight directors. One of the requirements for that meeting is that candidates must write a short one-page story on any topic they choose. To this end, Glover took a gamble by writing an essay titled “Girls Like Astronauts.” The jury didn’t have to look deeply into what Glover wrote before realizing that the girls he wrote about were his daughters.

“When you first see the title you think, ‘Oh god, what is this about?’” he says. “But then I talk about the romance of space travel and aviation, something that I can carry with me for a while and bring back to my girls. And it might just help them be proud of me.”

Glover took another chance when the board asked him about a mistake he made in his life and what he learned from it. For a pilot hoping to take the next step from fighter jet to spacecraft, a near-disaster in the cockpit seems like a topic to avoid, but Glover had experienced such a hair-raising episode during his Navy service and he decided to tell him. the truth. The incident occurred when he was participating in an air show and flying from the aircraft carrier George Washington near Japan. Most of the maneuvers the pilots performed were scripted, but Glover chose to improvise on one, flying over the water at 95% of the speed of sound and then turning nose-down before climbing again. The sky was clear, except for one cloud, which turned out to be directly in his path, causing him to fly too low.

“I realized I could see bubbles in the water very clearly,” he says. “I just pulled the stick into my lap and ended up 30 feet above the water.”

Glover flew back to the aircraft carrier, apologized to the commander for what he had admitted and promised that something like this would never happen again. An artillery officer then invited Glover to take a moment of privacy in his office. He accepted it and cried when he was alone.

“The board is not just looking for achievers,” Glover said. “Everyone has made a mistake in their life, and it’s about how you overcome it and what you learn about yourself.” That bit of candor clearly impressed the selection committee, setting Glover on a path that will take him to the moon within 18 months.

I’m almost certainly not going to follow it. Just hours after submitting my application, I received a polite acknowledgment of receipt from NASA. “Thank you for your interest… and for applying as an astronaut candidate,” it said. “You have successfully submitted your first application.”

My success will definitely stop there. Yet we live in a time where even people like me can dream a little dream and indulge in a little fantasy. Space travel was once the domain of only a certain kind of person: a certain kind of person. Fortunately that has changed. We can’t all fly, but we can all see ourselves in the people who do.

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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