NASA is recruiting a new class of astronauts

NEW YORK — Do you dream of leaving the planet?

NASA is looking for the next group of astronauts and you have until April 2 to make your own pitch.

“Typically it’s a very popular application,” said April Jordan, NASA’s astronaut selection manager.

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The chance that you will be selected is small. The last time NASA issued a call for applications, in 2020, more than 12,000 people applied.

It took the agency a year and a half to process the applications. NASA selected only 10 of the hopefuls, or 0.083%. That makes Harvard University’s 3.5% acceptance rate among high school students plentiful.

“So when I say ‘popular,’” Jordan said, “that’s probably an understatement.”

Jordan is on a media tour to spread the word that the “right things” to be an astronaut in 2024 won’t be the same as they were in the 1960s, when astronauts were all white men, almost all of them from the military.

Victor Glover, a nine-year veteran of the astronaut corps, joined her on this tour, which included a stop with The New York Times, which provided an inside look at how he navigated the rigorous selection process.

To become a NASA astronaut today, you must be a U.S. citizen and pass the astronaut physical exam.

NASA sets the bar quite high in education: a master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, followed by at least three years of related professional experience.

In addition, the agency tries to maintain an open mind. (For example, there is no age limit or requirement for 20/20 vision.)

“We want the group of astronaut candidates we select to be reflective of the nation they represent,” Jordan said.

Take Glover, for example.

In some ways he fits the historical archetype. Before NASA, he was a Navy aviator and trained as a test pilot.

He also breaks historical barriers.

In 2020, he became the first Black astronaut to serve as a crew member on the International Space Station, after two decades of astronauts living there. In 2025, he will become the first black astronaut to fly around the moon for the Artemis II mission.

To stand out in NASA’s competitive interview process, Glover knew he needed more than a strong resume. Above all, he was determined to get a good joke.

The night before one of Glover’s interviews at NASA for the class of 2013, he was asked to write an essay. The title: “Girls love astronauts.”

“They sit in this room all day listening to all these dry answers,” he remembered thinking. “I’m going to try to make them laugh.”

The essay turned from a punchline to a poignancy and reflected on the ways in which he tried to inspire his four daughters. He also decided to be vulnerable during the interview, sharing a “stubborn” moment when he risked almost hitting the water during an air show demonstration.

“You need to be able to share that information with the interview panel when you come in because inevitably you’re going to fail at something,” Jordan said. “And so there’s a humility that you have to bring even when you’ve accomplished great things.”

As part of the application process, Glover wrote a limerick that concluded, “This is all staggering to me, because I’ve given so much blood and pee.”

Glover had set his sights on traveling to space as a child when he saw his classmates moved to tears by the Challenger disaster.

His space ambitions increased years later when he heard a speech by Pam Melroy, a former Space Shuttle commander. Melroy, now NASA’s deputy administrator, recounted how her crew scrambled to repair a damaged solar panel on the International Space Station.

“I thought, ‘Wow, she just talked about something very technical, very logistically challenging,’” Glover said. “But the emotion in it was about the people.”

He then realized that just as astronauts need technical skills, they also need something more difficult to learn: social skills.

“You’re going to live in this tin can with someone for six months,” he said of staying on the space station. “We’re almost choosing family members.”

Glover proudly points out the diversity of backgrounds among today’s astronauts. “If you compare our office to the demographics of the country, we fit the country very well,” he said.

In some ways, the diversity within NASA even exceeds that of the private sector. The percentage of black astronauts is higher than the percentage of black people in the broader science and technology workforce, Glover said.

That’s the direct result of NASA’s sustained efforts over a few decades to recruit astronauts beyond the traditional archetype, he said.

“Our office looks the way it does because of this design and thinking about our biases and how it might impact who we hire,” he said. “I think this is a huge victory.”

But Glover acknowledged that diversity as a recruiting goal was becoming increasingly difficult.

Critics include Elon Musk, the billionaire who runs SpaceX, the rocket company NASA relies on to ferry cargo and astronauts — like Glover — to the International Space Station. NASA has also hired SpaceX to land astronauts on the moon.

“His view on some things is a little troubling,” Glover said of Musk.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment from Musk.

Musk has repeatedly called for the end of programs that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. “DEI is just another word for racism,” he posted in January on X, the social media network he owns.

Glover said he had just listened to a controversial interview Don Lemon, a former CNN anchor, recently conducted with Musk. “My mom sent it to me and she said, ‘Does he remember you riding in his spaceship?’ ” he said. “I think, ‘Ma, he probably remembers it very vividly.’ He’s a great intellect, but he probably doesn’t care.”

People ask him how he feels about becoming the first Black person to go on a moon mission next year, when Artemis II will swing around the moon without landing.

“Actually, I’m sad,” Glover said. “It’s 2025 and I’ll be the first? Come on.”

He told the story of Ed Dwight, the only Black Air Force pilot in the 1960s who met NASA’s restrictive requirements for astronauts at the time. But Dwight was never selected.

“Ed Dwight could have done this in the 1960s,” Glover said. “How much better would our country be if he actually got the chance? Society was not ready for it. It’s not him. He was ready.”

While Glover has heard some of the criticism of DEI initiatives, he is confident that seeking diversity is not about lowering standards and accepting less qualified candidates. “I think it just has to be excellence,” he said. “As long as you don’t equate whiteness or masculinity with excellence, we’re doing fine. We speak the same language.”

Many applicants are drawn by the potential glory of being the first astronauts to walk on Mars, a feat NASA is aiming for in the 2030s.

But Glover said they also had to think about the sacrifices they and their families would have to make along the way.

“The journey to Mars will take six to nine months,” he said. “You won’t be trusted again for more than a year, one to three years. Are you really ready for that?”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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