So You Want to Be an Astronaut?

10:32 minutes

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg of NASA uses a fundoscope to image her eye while in orbit. Photo by NASA
NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg uses a fundoscope to image her eye while in orbit. Photo by NASA

For the first time since 2011, you can apply to be a U.S. astronaut. The job listing, which went up this past Monday at usajobs.gov, included a few givens (“frequent travel may be required”) and a few surprises (applicants must meet certain “anthropometric requirements”). But what does it really mean to have the “right stuff” to be an astronaut? NASA chief—and former astronaut—Charles Bolden joins Ira to talk about what it takes to get to space, and where NASA’s next class of astronaut candidates might be headed.

Segment Guests

Charles Bolden

Charles Bolden is NASA Administrator in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Job seekers scanning usajobs.gov on Monday might have noticed an intriguing post– the position, astronaut candidate, the employer, NASA. That’s right– for the first time since 2011, you can apply to be a US astronaut. The competition is going to be fierce. The last time NASA accepted astronaut applications they got over 6,000 for just eight slots. And there were so-called anthropometric requirements– astronauts need to meet vision and height thresholds. You know that space suit isn’t one size fits all. And that’s before you get to the proverbial “right stuff”.

My next guest knows a thing or two about that. Joining me to talk about what it takes to get to space and where our next astronaut class is headed is NASA administrator Charles Bolden. And before heading up NASA he was an astronaut, including piloting the space shuttle Discovery on the mission that put the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. I’m very pleased to welcome Administrator Bolden back. Welcome back to Science Friday.

CHARLES BOLDEN: Ira, it’s great to be back. As I told you before, I always love to have the opportunity come on and be with you.

IRA FLATOW: Well thank you very much. Let’s talk about the job offering that you have up there. What kind of experience qualifications do these new astronauts need?

CHARLES BOLDEN: Well, believe it or not, it’s pretty straightforward. They have to have a bachelor’s degree in a technical field. And that means anything like science, physical sciences, biological sciences, engineering, math. If they’ve already finished school and they’re a doctor, they’re eligible. If they happen to be a pilot with an undergraduate degree, as long as they have 1,000 hours in high-performance jets they’re eligible. So pretty straightforward.

IRA FLATOW: But it’s pretty narrow. A lot of experience.

CHARLES BOLDEN: Eh. It gets narrow when you get to the selection process. And that’s when we start looking for special things like a demonstrated ability to do a space walk. And since I never did a space walk and I’ve never been close to a space suit, I’m not exactly sure how we test that down at the Johnson Space Center. But you’ve also got to demonstrate language capability, language aptitude, which I did not have to do. And then you have to be able to demonstrate agility manipulating robotic apparatus. I didn’t have to do that either. I doubt if I could be selected.

IRA FLATOW: I know some folks at Johnson. I think I can get you a tour down there, if you’re interested

CHARLES BOLDEN: I am hoping so.


IRA FLATOW: You make a great pitch in this job posting. You say NASA is on a journey to Mars. Is that where NASA is headed now?

CHARLES BOLDEN: That is absolutely correct. Most importantly, Ira, that’s where this nation is headed. NASA represents the civil space sector of the United States. And all of our nation’s partners look to us for leadership. And we’ve got, oh, any number of nations, up to 14, who helped us draft something called the Global Exploration Roadmap. But most of our international partners are right alongside us with a destination of Mars for humanity. In the 2030s is our ultimate goal right now.

IRA FLATOW: You know I always ask this question whenever I talk to you. Do we have the money to get there?

CHARLES BOLDEN: You know I am a happy camper today. We just got word that the House and Senate passed the 2016 omnibus authorization act. NASA is to be the recipient of about $19.3 billion for our 2016 budget. That is significant funds that supports our plan, with modest increase each year as we go out toward 2030 and increases for inflation. We have a plan at hand that will be funded with that kind of budget. We’re not looking for Apollo era funding. We’re looking for a steady increase in any growing economy. So we’re in good shape.

IRA FLATOW: In fact, they gave you more money than you asked for, didn’t they?

CHARLES BOLDEN: That’s why I said I’m a happy camper.


When my granddaughters come in and they say we want this for Christmas and I give them extra gifts, they’re happy. I’m really happy today. Santa has already come to me.

IRA FLATOW: Santa has come early. But that money is targeted for Mars missions, is it not?

CHARLES BOLDEN: There is some of it that’s targeted for Mars missions. The Congress has done an incredible job. And I tell you, I cannot think of the members of the Appropriations Committee and the authorizing committees. Senator Nelson’s been super, Senator Shelby, Senator Mikulski, Congressman Culberson, Congressman Honda. We owe it to all of them. It was a bipartisan effort. And they managed to cover all of the four major areas where NASA focuses– aeronautics, human space flight, science, and space technology, as well as plus up on our education program, our student education program. So I’m happy.

IRA FLATOW: Earlier this month NASA chief of human space flight William Gerstenmaier said that NASA was looking to move on from the International Space Station. He said we’re going to get out of ISS as quickly as we can. What does that mean for new astronauts? Are we not going to be training them for any space station work? Or are we–

CHARLES BOLDEN: Well, Ira, what Bill meant was when he said as quickly as we can, he means we hope that we will be prepared to move out into the vicinity of the moon as our next area of routine operations for NASA leadership. If all continues to go well– we were fully funded for commercial crew with this budget. So we should have a capability here in a couple of years to launch American astronauts and our partners from the Space Coast of Florida once again as we promised. That’ll be a big deal.

So we want to enable commercial entities and American industry to take over the primary responsibility for operating in low Earth orbit. And that will mean a follow-on to the current International Space Station. Right now it’s probably going to run out of its useful life sometime in the next decade, because it’s a machine and machines break and wear out. So we want to see that replaced with industrial facilities and commercial facilities. But we’ve got to be ready to move out into what we call cislunar space, the vicinity around the moon, for about 10 years to finish up our preparation for sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.

IRA FLATOW: So what you’re saying to commercial industry is we’re leaving low Earth orbit to you guys, it’s your playground now, we’re moving out to an asteroid, then Mars.

CHARLES BOLDEN: I wish I could say it that simply. What we’re saying is we’re going to depend on American industry and entrepreneurs to provide primary transportation there. NASA will still need to use low Earth orbit, but I want to be able to lease or buy the service, buy the laboratory space or whatever, and then bring them up eventually with us to cislunar space and then on to Mars. So that’s the way we’ve been working cooperatively thus far. And so far it’s working.

IRA FLATOW: If Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos, or any of the new rocket pioneers decide to go it alone, let’s say. They’ve talked about going out. Would Nasa provide astronauts for them in that kind of venture?

CHARLES BOLDEN: No, NASA doesn’t provide astronauts for non-government ventures. However, as I have told our international partners and our industry partners, when we get the space launch system and Orion operating and we’re able to go to lunar orbit again, it has the power and the lift capability to carry not only NASA programs and projects, but our partners along with us. And I said we will support and help anyone who wants to prepare a lander to go to the surface of the moon with one condition– I want to be able to put a NASA astronaut on the crew that goes down.

So hopefully Jeff will continue to do what he’s doing. He is doing an absolutely incredible job at Blue Origin. They shocked everybody, and pleasantly surprised us, when they did the actual vertical return and landing to a safe cushioned touchdown coming back from the first actual suborbital flight into space. Brought back both the first stage and the crew module.

IRA FLATOW: A little easier than landing on a rocking platform in the middle of the ocean.

CHARLES BOLDEN: You know, SpaceX will do that. It’s hard. It’s hard to do any of that stuff. And that’s what makes us so proud.

There is no competition between NASA and industry. The competition is among the industry partners of ours. Our job is to facilitate their success. And I hope that if you were to talk to Jeff Bezos or to Elon Musk, they would tell you that they have been successful to date in no small part due to the partnership and contributions of NASA. We want them to be successful. We need for them to be successful. And I want them to go as far as they can go. If they want to go it alone, fine. But if they need our help, that’s our job, is to be here to help them.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. If you can tell Jeff to give us a call, we’ve been trying to reach him.


We’d be very– Elon’s been on a few times, but Jeff is a little shy of the phone, so.

CHARLES BOLDEN: You know, maybe, I tell you what.


Next time I talk to him, I’ll mention it. And I’m certain that he will have somebody from Blue Origin. He generally stays in the background. And that’s one of the things I really like about him. He’s actually a very humble guy.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve got about a minute left. What is the first destination the new astronaut class would have?

CHARLES BOLDEN: The new astronaut class, their first stop is very likely– they’re definitely going to fly on our commercial vehicles. They’ll be ready by the time they finish their two years of astronaut. They’re not going to be selected to come to work until 2017. And that’s the first year we’re going to fly our commercial crew vehicles. So they will be among the first to fly on those. But their next stop is actually on Orion going to lunar orbit.

And then eventually they will be the trailblazers. They’ll be the ones that are going to do all the development we need in order to send, perhaps, the classroom after them to Mars. Some of them will stay around and some of them may go to Mars. But they know coming in that their job is to be the trailblazers for the first Mars occupants.

IRA FLATOW: Well Administrative Bolden, thank you for taking time to be with us. And I’m glad you had an early Christmas this year.

CHARLES BOLDEN: Ira, it’s a very early Christmas. We announced the Astronaut selection process on Monday and finished off the week with a phenomenal budget. Thanks to Congress and the president.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll be watching and keeping our fingers crossed for you. Thank you very much. Have a happy new year and a happy holiday.

CHARLES BOLDEN: Thank you very much, same to you.

IRA FLATOW: Charles Bolden, heading up NASA, NASA Administrator.

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