If you love being a jack of all trades and wouldn't mind multitasking miles above the Earth's surface, you should give serious thought to becoming an astronaut.
It's a career of startling variety…astronauts can be called upon: to operate a robotic arm in the international space station; to conduct experiments at earthbound Mission Control to build a better space vehicle and/or satellite; to fix a defective toilet at zero gravity; or to laud the space program to armies of kids at school assemblies all over the good ol' U.S.A.
Astronauts are scientists, explorers, teachers and preachers (about the greatness of NASA and the glory of space exploration) rolled into one. They are men (and women) with a mission–even though, these days, there are few actual missions to go on.
But before you run off to NASA to sign up to be a future space cowboy, check out the chances of achieving your orbital dream.
A tiny percentage (less than 1 percent) are accepted into the grueling astronaut training program. For those who actually make it off planet Earth, polish your hitchhiking skills. In 2011, the U.S. ended its space shuttle program, which sent vehicles filled with astronauts to the orbiting international space station. So if you want to get the heck out of Dodge–or Mission Control in Cape Canaveral—and into space, you'll have to muscle in on a Russian crew heading there in a Soyuz spacecraft.
But say you're really committed to spending your life doing other-worldly things, despite the odds. The road to being an astronaut is long and twisted, and physically and emotionally taxing. You have to be good in science, yes, but equally important are your social skills. Hear that, science nerds? Playing well with others is crucial when you're bunched up against each other in a small space, in space, for up to six months.
And, speaking of small spaces, claustrophobia is a no-no for future astronauts of America. Space capsules and space stations, with their crews, make for a lot of up close and personal living. You also have to be great physical shape, on the scale of athletic conditioning just shy of that of an Olympian, according to one astronaut. Strong bones and muscles, reinforced by cardiovascular and weight-training exercises, are the antidote to what virtual weightlessness does to those body parts, e.g., deterioration and disintegration, leading to loss of the use of limbs for a long time.
And, of course, there's more. You should have an almost superhuman capacity to endure mind-shattering boredom, because much is mundane in the world of space exploration. Yes, it may have been one giant step for man when Neil Armstrong tromped around the moon's surface, but today's astronauts more often than not are making repairs in the space station, fitting skullcaps on a crew mate for recording an electroencephalogram, conducting zero-gravity experiments, installing new toilets and the like.
Psychological stability is a big plus, too, because the ability to handle stress would factor in if, when a crew mate gets on your nerves, you either Zen out or you kill the hapless slob (so far, no one has been murdered in space). Cross-cultural sensitivity is a big deal, too, because your space crew mates hail from many other countries. You may have a Spanish astronaut who has a Spanish "thing" of lighting on fire the hairs on his head. He's cool with it. You can't stand it. Compromise calleth.
So, you're still bent on being an astronaut. Ask yourself, which kind? Let's assume that you don't want to be a payload specialist, the domain of teachers, senators, and Saudi princes. There's the pilot astronaut, who pilots the space vehicle, and has a ton of experience as a test pilot. And then there is the mission specialist, who conducts science experiments on Earth, or, if on a mission, noodles around the space vehicle making repairs and launching satellites. The specialists typically have had previous earthly training as doctors, biologists, and engineers.
And if you make the grade, as a civilian (some astronauts are in the military), you'll be working for the government, in the NASA Astronaut Corps, reporting to the Chief of the Astronaut Office, and you'll be paid according to government pay scale grades GS11 through GS14.
Piloting a space vehicle around Earth and conducting experiments is a far cry from what astronauts were doing in the early days of the U.S. space program—in the 1960s, during the days of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union were competing to be the first in everything sub-orbital, orbital and extra-orbital. It was as if both superpowers were engaging in single-combat war for the honor of the nation—in space.
Back then, astronauts were daredevil, "right stuff" test pilots used to break altitude and sound records. Through Apollo 11, every mission was a groundbreaking "first": the first trip to outer space, the first orbit, the first spacewalk, first human on the moon. After Apollo, the mission of the missions turned to experimentation. And they also became more routine. So, aspiring astronauts, remember to work on your ability to thrive in boredom. As one Apollo 17 astronaut wrote: "A funny thing happened on the way to the moon: not much. Should have brought some crossword puzzles."
About 1 percent of an astronaut's professional life is spent in space, now that the space shuttle is history. Earthbound life includes committee meetings, speaking at schools, test-driving software and hardware, toiling at Mission Control at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Texas. This life is known in astronautic vernacular as "flying a desk."
NASA does have plans to explore deep space and eventually land on Mars. But when? Who knows? A target date is 2016, but talk is cheap.
The glory of being an astronaut, desk bound or not, is that you'd be participating, in either big or small steps, in the human quest to go boldly where no man or woman has gone before. Take it from Star Trek's Capt. Kirk—he's been there, done that.