Do You Have The ‘Right Stuff’ To Be An Astronaut?

17:07 minutes

an astronaut in space on the international space station holds a photoshopped sign that says "help wanted"
Want to be an astronaut? NASA is currently looking for candidates! Credit: NASA/Designed by Lauren Young

If you’ve ever considered being an astronaut, this might be your chance to land that dream job. This week, NASA opened applications for a new class of astronaut candidates. It’s a full-time position based in Houston, Texas, paying over $104,000 per year. Job duties would include “conducting operations in space, including on the International Space Station (ISS) and in the development and testing of future spacecraft” and “performing extravehicular activities (EVA) and robotics operations using the remote manipulator system.” Please note that “substantial travel” is required.

How do you know if you have the ‘right stuff’ to apply? First, you’ll need a master’s degree or higher in some sort of STEM field, or two years in a doctoral program, or an M.D. or D.O. degree. Applicants with just a STEM bachelor’s degree may also be considered—if they’re also a certified test pilot or currently in test pilot school.  

Frank Rubio, a NASA astronaut who completed the most recent previous selection program in 2017, joins Ira to talk about what other qualities are valuable in an astronaut applicant—and the training program for those accepted.  

Are you ready to apply? Check out the job listing

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Segment Guests

Frank Rubio

Frank Rubio is a NASA astronaut and a member of the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class. He’s based at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

Have you ever wanted to be an astronaut? And I just don’t mean like a little kid– I want to be an astronaut, and veterinarian, and a firefighter kind of way– but actually thought about it as a real job option? Well, this week NASA opened job applications for a new class of astronaut candidates. The whole class– let’s see how many they’ll have in that class. You can apply by the end of March if you think you have the right stuff.

What qualities are they looking for, and what happens after you get selected? Well, we’ve got someone on the inside to be your job coach. Let me introduce Frank Rubio. He’s a NASA astronaut. He completed the last round of the selection process for the 2017 class of candidates. And now he’s, as they say, awaiting flight assignment at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Welcome to Science Friday.

FRANK RUBIO: Hey, Ira. Good afternoon. It’s great to be with you this afternoon.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Let’s talk about some of the basic qualifications. You need a STEM degree– a minimum of a master’s degree. Is that right?

FRANK RUBIO: That’s right. Yeah, this is the first year that we’re requiring at least a master’s. It used to be a bachelor’s in stem. But I think because the last two classes have all had a higher degree, they’ve decided to add that as a minimum requirement.

IRA FLATOW: And I know a lot of our listeners qualify for at least the master’s. A lot of them are PhDs. And if they want to call, in our number is 844-724-8255, 844 side talk. Or they can tweet us @SciFri.

So if you watch the old movies about astronauts and the qualifications , no one needs to have flight experience to be a pilot, right?

FRANK RUBIO: That is correct. You don’t have that flight experience, but you do need to be able to pass a flight physical. One of the things you’ll be trained on is flight training. And of course for spaceflight, it’s of the utmost importance that you be able to pass a flight physical.

IRA FLATOW: And you need to be a US citizen, correct?

FRANK RUBIO: That’s correct. And that’s about it. You know, people are kind of surprised at how basic some of the requirements are. But it’s basically the physical, the degree, being a US citizen, and a few years of work experience.

IRA FLATOW: How different is this from when back in the day on the space shuttle– they had the teacher in space. Once they were going to put a journalist in space. So we going back to that sort of idea?

FRANK RUBIO: You know Ira, that’s another thing that people are surprised by, is the variety of people that we bring to the astronaut office. There are some of us who have a military background. But we have a bunch of scientists– we have a large variety of scientists. We do have a couple of teachers in the astronaut corps.

And so really as long as you meet the requirements, your background can be anything you want. And we’re looking for people who are curious about the world around them, who are a great team players, and who just want to contribute to something that’s much bigger than themselves.

IRA FLATOW: And how many astronauts will this class comprise of?

FRANK RUBIO: You know, I don’t think anybody actually knows yet. That actually requires congressional approval, and that’s usually not attained until later on in the process.

IRA FLATOW: And we’ve heard that NASA wants to go back to the moon. Could you expect, if you got accepted, that you might be one of those people?

FRANK RUBIO: I think the next class will definitely have some people that will be part of the Artemis mission. Artemis is, of course, the name of the mission to the moon. We hope to be back there in 2024. And of course there’ll be people that are more senior in the astronaut office who will participate in that mission initially, but I think eventually some of us younger astronauts will also get that chance.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones to Pensacola. Joshua, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

JOSHUA: Yeah, I was going to ask, I read on the internet that you could be a graduate of Test Pilot School to also be eligible. And if you could, was it military friendly? I’m active duty military right now, and is that a possibility?

FRANK RUBIO: Hey, Joshua. Yeah, thanks for the question.

So you know, historically, the astronaut corps was composed of almost exclusively military test pilots. That’s changed over the last few decades. But there are still a fair amount– probably about 50% of the core– that’s made up of active duty or previously active duty military.

IRA FLATOW: You have a shot, Joshua.

JOSHUA: All right, I appreciate it. Thanks, guys.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

OK, so when you hire somebody for a job, you usually have an idea of what tasks they’ll be doing, right? Are people getting selected on the basis of skills that might need down the road, or like, oh, we need to grow plants on the moon. Let’s get a botanist, or grow potatoes, or something.

FRANK RUBIO: Yeah. I think so. I think the big picture is always kept in mind. I think more than anything the qualifications are can you contribute to a team, can you be a team player, and can you really be somebody that takes a hold of a NASA mission and just makes it your own.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 844-724-8255 is our number, or you can also tweet us @SciFri.

Well, what’s your background? How did you get to be an astronaut?

FRANK RUBIO: Yeah, so I started off as a military– an army– Blackhawk pilot. I did that for about eight years. And then I transitioned to medicine, became a family medicine physician– also in the army. And my last job was working with special operations forces as one of their doctors.

And I applied for the last class. Similar to a lot of people, I dreamed about the opportunity go to space. But really just, again, the idea of continuing to contribute to something that was bigger than myself, and being able to do a mission that very few people get a chance to do– that really appealed to me. And so I figured, hey, what the heck? Let me try it. And I was blessed enough to be selected.

IRA FLATOW: Are you hoping to go to the moon?

FRANK RUBIO: You know, honestly any of us would love to do that. But I think we’re all ready to do whatever mission NASA gives us. The International Space Station is still an amazing platform, and it would be a huge honor and a privilege participate in that mission. But whatever mission they give me, I think ready to go.

IRA FLATOW: OK. 844-724-8255. Of course you’re a doctor, so that’s a great position to be in anywhere. We always will need a doctor someplace.

FRANK RUBIO: Yeah, and we have some great doctors in the core. There’s currently about five of us, and so hopefully we’ll be able to continue to do the mission. If there is not a doctor on the mission, actually some of the training that we get, other astronauts will be trained in basic medical expertise. And they will act as the medical officer on the mission.

IRA FLATOW: Give me some idea of the training. If you get selected for the initial round– if you’re lucky enough– how long is the training and future selection rounds?

FRANK RUBIO: Yeah, it is a long road, and you do a lot of learning. So the first two years we call astronaut candidate training. And really what it means is that you’re just able to focus on the training. And you generally focus on five big areas. You have to learn the Russian language to a medium proficiency. You have to learn robotics to be able to operate primarily the Canadarm. You learn all of the various systems in the International Space Station, so that while you’re up there you’re able to contribute with a basic knowledge of how it operates.

And then you also get to train in the spacesuit. And you train in the Neutral Buoyancy lab, our six million gallon pool, where we have a mock up of the space station. And we learn to essentially fly in a spacesuit.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Lots of folks want to ask questions, so let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Bob in Milwaukee. Hi, Bob.

BOB: Hey, how’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

BOB: I had a question for NASA. I’m a fifth year apprentice welder. And you guys need welders on the moon? I think that’d be awesome if I could get a chance to go do that.

FRANK RUBIO: That’s a great question, Bob. You know, actually a lot of us tend to dabble in different things. I know a few of my classmates enjoy welding. Some enjoy carpentry. And I really think you do have to have the ability to handle tools, and do basic handyman work. So yeah, absolutely. We need people with all sorts of skills.

IRA FLATOW: I have a tweet from Jeremiah who says, is nursing considered a STEM degree for applying for being a NASA astronaut?

FRANK RUBIO: You know, I don’t want to give a wrong answer, so I’m not sure on that one. That’s something I would have to look up. I know a medical degree is, and I believe that as long as you have a master’s level nursing degree that it would count. But I’m not 100% sure on that one.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Lots of calls. Let me see how many I can get to. Steve in San Antonio. Hi, Steve.

STEVE: Hey, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hey there.

STEVE: I recently was a NASA collegiate aerospace scholar this past fall. I have a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, and I’m currently doing my master’s degree in nutrition. So I was wondering you know what would be the needs for growing food. I think that was mentioned, as well as nutrition-based astronaut on these upcoming missions. And would I be maybe an eligible candidate?

FRANK RUBIO: Yeah, that’s a great question. Again, I appreciate it.

So yes, growing food in space is something that we’re already looking at. The Veggie project was something we recently did. And some of my peers have been able to taste food that they’ve grown in space. So that’s absolutely a skill that we’re looking for. And like I said, if you do meet the basic requirements– having your masters and then having three years of work experience– you should absolutely apply.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Nathan in Bay Area California. Hi, Nathan.

NATHAN: Hello, hello. Good afternoon, I guess. Yes, I have a question. So I’m an electrical engineer, bachelor’s degree. And I work a lots NASA rocket engines. And actually my current job supply equipment to NASA. But my question is, is there an age limitation for becoming an astronaut, and what is it?

IRA FLATOW: Is there an age limitation?

FRANK RUBIO: Thanks, Nathan. No, there’s not, actually. I believe that the oldest person ever selected was 46.

IRA FLATOW: John Glenn was up there while he was in his 70s, in the shuttle.

FRANK RUBIO: Correct, but he had already been an astronaut for while. As far as the limit for where you can fly, as long as you’re able to pass your space physical, you can continue to contribute to the mission. So no, there is no age limit on the upper end. And on the lower end, as long as you meet the requirements, you’re good.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s say you go through all your training, and now you’re awaiting flight selection. How did they decide who gets to go on which flight?

FRANK RUBIO: The real answer is I don’t know. It’s a decision made by our leadership. And I believe a lot of it is driven by the mission requirement, and who they believe best can contribute to the mission.

IRA FLATOW: OK let’s go to Dale in Lancaster, PA. Hi, Dale.

DALE: Hi, Ira. Just wanted to make a comment. In 2003 I was a teacher, and I applied for the teacher space program. Went through the entire process, and the trip down to Houston for the physicals and stuff. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, meeting people like John Young and such, unfortunately I came out fifth, and they only picked three, so I didn’t go to space. But incredible, incredible opportunity. Everybody should try it.

IRA FLATOW: Were you in Christa McAuliffe’s class?

DALE: No, I was not. Barbara Morgan was one of the people One of the astronauts selecting. But this was when they opened the astronaut program to teachers, as opposed to the mission specialist program that Christa McAuliffe was in.

IRA FLATOW: But you had a great time, huh?

DALE: Absolutely. It is an incredible experience. And it would be great to go to space, but just going down to Houston and going through that whole process was incredible. And the astronauts were– the only question you had is, what are you doing here. Because the folks are fantastic.

IRA FLATOW: OK, thanks for calling and sharing with us. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

I’m talking about– OK, Frank, give me an idea. Is there a website? How do you go through this?

FRANK RUBIO: Yeah, sure. Actually it is a government job, so you actually just go to USA Jobs. And on their search blog just type an astronaut. And until the 31st the application process will be open. So just as simple as go into USA Jobs and applying.

IRA FLATOW: So you get a GS classification– like a 13, a 12– that tells you what your salary is going to be.

FRANK RUBIO: Correct. And it depends on your background, and how much experience you bring to the table as far as if you’re a civilian. Those of us that are military will actually generally stay active duty for at least a few years. And so I’m still active duty army, and have continued on with my military benefits.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see. We’ve got a few more questions. Let’s go to Henry in Harrisburg, PA. Hi, Henry.

HENRY: Hi, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

HENRY: I am a undergrad student studying computer science– my bachelor’s. And I want to know what is generally the schedule of when they roll out these applications? When could the next earliest time that I could apply be, after this round?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, he hasn’t got his yet hasn’t got his master’s yet, so he’s wondering about the future.

FRANK RUBIO: Well Henry, keep at it. Historically there’s been classes selected about every four years. There’s no really hard rule on that. It actually just, again, depends on the mission requirement. There were a couple of times during the shuttle era that classes were selected on subsequent years. And so every year they selected a class. The need was much greater back then. But for the last few cycles, it’s been about a four year term. So every four years or so now we open up the application cycle.

IRA FLATOW: You know, we’ve asked our listeners on the SciFri VoxPop what skills or experiences they had that might make them good candidates. And we got a range of answers, including this one– Billy from Santa Barbara.

BILLY: I am a poet and an astronomer, and I would be a wonderful candidate to go and be an informed observer. It would just really be an eye opener from a different perspective.

IRA FLATOW: Frank, there have been in the past calls for artists in residence, right? There was once a journalist qualified to go up.

FRANK RUBIO: Yeah. And again, it’s really been amazing. Like one of the previous callers said, one of the best things about this is just the people you get to meet. And your eyes are kind of opened. There are just incredible people out there.

And within the astronaut corps, again, you have to have as your basis a STEM background. But we have some amazing artists. I mean, I’m just really talented people who can draw, paint, sing– do all sorts. I, unfortunately, am not blessed with those gifts. But I’m always amazed by how talented my co-workers are.

IRA FLATOW: It would be great someday they just have an artist in space.

FRANK RUBIO: Yeah, I think those people, even though they’re scientists, they’re also artists.

IRA FLATOW: And musicians. Some of them great musicians.

FRANK RUBIO: Exactly. You can have more than one tag that you wear.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us today, Frank.

FRANK RUBIO: Thank you for having me, Ira. It was an honor, and thank you to your audience for listening.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I think they learned a lot, and I think may have inspired a few folks out there to join. And good luck to you when you’re in your training, and your future missions.

FRANK RUBIO: Thank you, I appreciate it. You have a great day.

IRA FLATOW: You too. Frank Rubio, a NASA astronaut based at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston.

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