Astronomer Dr. Pamela L. Gay returns what it really takes to be an astronaut—an inside look at required skills and the long timeline involved.
Astronauts Prepping to be The Martian:
They build things and grow things…in space
by Dr. Pamela L. Gay
“Kid, by the time you’re grown up NASA will have built all the cool stuff.” I heard those words in 1988. That dude was wrong—today is a great time (for somebody else) to be an astronaut.
At the time, eighth-grade me was standing in front of a diagram of the planned Space Station Freedom at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center. I was there to pretend to be an astronaut as I attended Space Camp. At that adolescent moment, all I wanted to do was fly among the stars, help build space stations, conduct research, be a science communicator, and build international peace one rocket launch at a time. I was a kid; I wanted to do everything, and I wanted to do it in space.
Twenty-eight years later, NASA still has plenty of cool things to do. I still want to change the world and I still want to explore the universe, but I, for one, welcome our robot overlords. I’m just going to sit right here at my keyboard and let the rovers get me some data while the astronauts do some epically hard stuff. Going to space is hard (I am lazy.) The universe really is trying to kill us, and keeping alive in the battlefield of space is more than hard.
Today’s modern astronaut is a jock, a genius, a socialite, and an engineer. These men and women realized young that the sky could be someone else’s limit, and they trained their minds and their bodies to accomplish anything. They went to college and got a degree… and then another… and often another one or more after that. They are trained to be top practitioners in their fields, but unlike so many others (including the similarly-educated author of this article) they kept striving.
The typical astronaut candidate is between 26 and 46, has multiple degrees in science or engineering, is in superb physical health, speaks (some) Russian, and may also be a military pilot.
They are also experts in delayed gratification.
Astronaut Jeanette Epps Ph.D. holds degrees in physics and aerospace engineering, has worked as a researcher at Ford Motor Company and for the CIA. At age 45, she is now an astronaut waiting to fly; and while she waits she actually got to serve as part of a 9-day mission aboard the Aquarius underwater laboratory.
People don’t tell kids about the waiting that goes into being an astronaut. Dr. Epps has been an astronaut waiting to fly for 5 years.
In 2006, I met astronaut Leland Melvin at an event for schoolteachers. I was there to talk about podcasting and he was there to talk about being an astronaut. Teacher after teacher asked this engineer and former professional football player “So what’s it like in space?” and over and over he kept saying, “Sorry, I haven’t flown yet.” As the day progressed, Melvin slowly deflated, but he kept on educating those eager teachers about what astronauts do and how astronauts still play an important role on Earth, both in working on flight-related problems and in educating the public. Part of the 1998 astronaut class, Melvin would have to wait until 2008 to get his first 13 days in space. During his astronaut career, he flew on the Space Shuttle twice and aided in the construction of the International Space Station. Today, he is NASA’s Associate Administrator for Education and he can finally tell teachers exactly what it’s like in orbit.
They also don’t tell you astronauts are really construction workers, farmers, technicians, and repairmen.
The astronauts build amazing things, run experiments designed by researchers on Earth, and then fix things that break. They are needed in large part because they have thumbs which are attached to highly versatile brains that can MacGyver solutions to all the random issues that arise on a football-field-sized spacecraft that has 18 years and many many million miles of wear and tear.
They don’t tell you astronauts are the space equivalent of construction workers, but they should.
Imagine if every little kid playing with a Tonka Truck imagined they were going to build a lunar base? What if every teen trying to hack a family Roomba for a YouTube video thought, “I’m going to repair robots on Mars.” We need construction workers, and technicians, and repairmen. And we need them in space.
These astronauts are the ones that let ground-based scientists like me explore our universe. Here on Earth, teams of scientists and engineers spend multiple years and often millions (or billions!) of dollars designing experiments, spacecraft, and rovers that travel to space (and other worlds), and send back amazing scientific data. These programmed piles of electronics are the pioneers pushing our understanding forward. Many of these tools, like the Hubble Space Telescope, are functional because astronauts have risked their lives over and over to fix them for the sake of science.
I welcome my robot overlords, but I honor the astronauts who strive everyday to maintain our foothold in the harsh territory of space (and to grow lettuce and zinnia). The universe is trying to kill us, and those astronauts are holding the front lines as we do reconnaissance beyond the sky’s limits.
Dr. Pamela L. Gay is an astronomer, writer, and podcaster determined to inflict space on you via the internet. Escape is not possible: you will engage in science.
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