When we were kids, pretty much all of us had big dreams. Some of us wanted to be doctors, lawyers, or even the President of the United States, while some of us dreamed bigger and higher, beyond Earth's stratosphere, even. We wanted to be astronauts, which, generally speaking, is actually pretty simple to accomplish. You don't need a PHD, a piloting licenses, or a million dollars. All you need is a college degree; some experience in the field of science; and the skills to pass a physical and psychological test. Sounds simplistic enough, right? Well, in reality, it's not nearly as easy as it sounds.
For starters, in 2013, over 6 000 people applied to become astronauts, and yet only 8 were chosen. "How come this number is so small,"you might wonder? Well, According to SPACE.com, on August 8th, a group of NASA psychologists finally shed some light on the rigorous procedures used to single out viable candidates from those who meet the physical and educational requirements, but might not have the mental or emotional capacity to handle living in space for any stretch of time.
"We're looking for the 'right stuff,' but we're also trying to get rid of people with the 'wrong stuff," explained a psychologist and a member of the astronaut selection panel, Kelley Slack.
How Long Does the Process Take?
From start to finish, the whole process is quite long, with it typically taking about two years for a single candidate to move from the applicant phase, to the final selection. This doesn't even take into account just how much time generally passes between being selected and taking to the skies for the first time. In most instances, ten years can pass before the newly-minted astronaut heads off on his or her's first mission. According to Slack, the process is exacerbated by the psychological aspect of the testing. Over the years, the board members have developed tests designed to help them better predict how each of the candidates will react to various situations they might encounter in space. Additionally, it isn't uncommon for astronauts to take on tasks they weren't originally trained for, which can be stressful in this kind of environment.
They've set up a two part psychological evaluation for those that move beyond an applicant to a candidate. During the first part, they sit down with the candidate and ask basic questions people usually ask during job interviews. Then comes the more difficult part, which was devised to not only see which tasks the candidate is qualified for, but to help gauge how he or she might deal with high-stress situations. Later, the candidate is asked to take part in various field exercises at the Johnson Space Center itself. These exercises are meant to replicate a number of tasks an astronaut might be asked to perform in microgravity (though, for security reasons, Slack couldn't expand on the exercises or what they entail).
If it isn't obvious just yet, NASA looks for individuals that are not only qualified, but resourceful, quick on their feet (so to speak) and can keep their cool in life or death situations. They also need to be mentally and emotionally sound, as life beyond Earth's surface is far more physically challenging than life on Earth.
Things You Could Be Disqualified For:
There are a number of things an applicant can be disqualified for, but as we've alluded to, the psychological aspect seems to be the deciding factor between *a* qualified candidate (one with the education, the background and the desire to go where no man has ever gone before) and the most qualified candidate. If this seems inconsequential, consider that in space, a person is pretty much cut off from the rest of society, despite being suspended just 205 miles (330 km) above Earth's surface. At any given time, there are less than half a dozen astronauts (at the most) living on the ISS in extremely close quarters, sometimes for months at a time. With them essentially having little to no access to their friends and family, these astronauts might feel lonely and cramped simultaneously. This, in turn, can lead to an increasingly stressful situations.
The dietary guidelines are pretty restrictive as well (at least compared to Earth), as astronauts must go to great lengths to retain their health, which can also be accomplished with exercise. Speaking of which, the act of living in microgravity can be pretty strenuous on the human body. Many astronauts have reported experiencing depression and insomnia while in space. These things can also follow them back to Earth, so it takes a special kind of person to handle all of this without letting it weigh them down. Plus, out there in the abyss, there are numerous things lurking in the darkness. One displaced meteor, or a piece of space junk traveling at a high velocity could spell the end of someone who isn't able to separate their training and skills from their emotions.
The psychologists involved in the selection process didn't elaborate further on the numerous afflictions that could disqualify a candidate, but they did say that marital problems could be one such issue that would bring their capability to do their job properly into question. They also didn't divulge whether or not stress tests are involved at any point throughout the process, but Slack admits that they would likely be extremely useful, continuing by saying that other, non-NASA space agencies have techniques that differ from those NASA use. "Sometimes we look at [our international partners] with envy at some of the things they get to do that we don't get to do," she said.
As NASA's missions evolve over the coming years, the selection process will surely change right along with them, especially where a trip to the outer solar system is concerned. So if you don't fit the bill right now, don't be disparaged. When at first you don't succeed, try again. If you still don't succeed, there are still a number of ways you can further the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
For more fun, see what happens when you wring out a washcloth in space, or learn how we might clean up space junk with harpoons.