Science. Communication. Community.
NASA recently selected eight individuals to train as astronaut candidates who will possibly travel into outer space in the coming years. Unfortunately, they didn’t pick me.
Like many scientists, I’ve wanted to be an astronaut almost as long as I’ve known what stars are. Beyond the allure of weightlessness and pouches of freeze-dried ice cream, the opportunity to perform incredible experiments and to be a role model for upcoming scientists around the world makes my heart skip a beat every time I think about it.
A few weeks ago, NASA announced the names of its 2013 Astronaut Candidates who will go through highly specialized training for a shot at a trip into space. And mine was not one of them.
About a year and a half ago, as I was nearing the end of graduate school and looking for future careers, I stumbled upon news that NASA was hiring for what may be the single coolest job in the world. Upon further investigation, the entire initial application consisted of, essentially, a CV. “What are the odds?” I said to myself. “I have one of those!”
So, CV submitted, I became an astronaut candidate candidate. Unbeknownst to me, so did more than 6,100 other Americans. I applied because there was no apparent downside. Were I to get the job, I would literally have achieved my highest career aspiration. And if NASA passed me over, I would probably get a letter stating something to the effect of “you are not qualified to be an astronaut,” which I would then frame and hang on the wall next to my diploma. I couldn’t lose.
Unfortunately, neither came true, exactly. Almost a year and half after my initial application, I received a very polite letter that did not specifically address any of my shortcomings, thus quashing my plans for interior decoration.
The letter did direct me to information on the eight individuals selected as astronaut candidates, and the group doesn’t fail to impress. Most have doctorates or experience as military test pilots. Their video profiles available online demonstrate that each has the poise, intelligence, and motivation to succeed as NASA’s figureheads and make us proud.
To be clear, being an astronaut candidate is not a guarantee of a trip to space. Each will undergo a rigorous training regimen conditioning them for an environment unlike anything they’ve ever encountered before. After the recent retirement of the space shuttle program, those who go on to become full-fledged astronauts will then likely travel to the International Space Station via Russian Soyuz or SpaceX Dragon rockets. Unfortunately, a mission to Mars is still a long ways from being technically feasible and may not fall within the service careers of these particular individuals.
When they return to earth, astronauts have an imperative for outreach as high-profile representatives of the space program and all the science, engineering, and mathematics required to send a human into space. I hope each will exploit his or her status as a space explorer to motivate and inspire future generations to take us to Mars and beyond. As a scientist and a science communicator, I can think of no calling more noble than to be such a profound inspiration for young minds.
Although I may never travel to space myself or even ride the “vomit comet,” I wish our new astronaut candidates great success in their training and future missions.