I Applied to Be a NASA Astronaut. You Can Too

8 minute read

Recently, I applied to become an astronaut. I would like to be able to say that there is a non-zero chance I will be accepted, but sub-zero is more like it. Not a whole lot of people who can actually recall Sputnik—which, for the record, was launched on Oct. 4, 1957—quite make the age cut to climb on top of a rocket. Still, I filled out the nine-page form and sent it in, even if I have no doubt I’ll wind up in the cosmic slush pile.

You, however, may have more luck. NASA is hiring; on March 5 it opened its doors to a new class of 12 or so astronauts and will be accepting applications until April 2, though it is considering extending the deadline to accommodate more candidates. The salary is $152,258; the place of employment is the Johnson Space Center in Houston—with work trips to, you know, space. But it’s best to prepare yourself for disappointment. NASA hires a new astronaut class every four years or so, and back in 2015, a peak year, there were about 12,000 applicants—a number that could be matched this time around too, says April Jordan, NASA’s astronaut hiring manager.

“There were certainly some things going on in the world then, like The Martian coming out,” says Jordan. The rise of the private space sector and the beginning of NASA’s Artemis lunar program could similarly turbocharge things in 2024. Not every one of the applications in 2015 was entirely serious, and things are likely to be the same now. “We actually have a fair number of folks who apply just to get the rejection,” Jordan says. All the same, untold thousands will apply in earnest, and NASA is making a special effort in this recruitment round to stress that it is becoming ever-more egalitarian, ever-more receptive to astronaut candidates who don’t fit the narrow fighter-jock profile.

In 1958, when America went casting about for its first class of seven astronauts, candidates had to meet a range of rigorous standards, including being military test pilots with more than 1,500 hours in the cockpit; possessing a degree in the physical sciences or engineering; standing no more than five feet, eleven inches tall, in order to fit into the tiny Mercury spacecraft, and more. Then too, there were the unspoken criteria: the people selected were all white, all male, all family men.

Those walls have long been coming down, but only slowly: After more than 65 years in the space game, NASA has flown 329 astronauts, 54 of whom have been women. The numbers are even lower for Black Americans, with just 17 making trips to space. Still, progress is accelerating. In 2020, the space agency announced the 18 astronauts it had selected for the Artemis lunar missions it intends to commence next year; nine of the crewmembers are women and 10 are people of color, three are women of color, and two are Hispanic.

“More than a decade ago, NASA decided that equity and inclusion would be part of its core values,” says Victor Glover, a Naval aviator and Iraq war veteran who was selected in the astronaut class of 2013 and spent six months aboard the International Space Station in 2020 and 2021. He will also be the first Black person to visit the moon when he and the other three members of the Artemis II crew make a circumlunar journey in September 2025. The team also includes Christina Koch, the first woman assigned to a moon mission. “[NASA’s] decisions have led us to having an astronaut office that looks very much like America," Glover says. "You could reach in and grab any four people, and they would look like our crew.”

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NASA’s astronaut application is, in many ways, like most job applications—with sections to list education, work experience, references, and more. Military service is included as well, but it is not the absolute criterion it once was. The astronauts who make it through the current selection process will not just be demographically diverse, but professionally too. Firefighters and other first responders are especially prized by the 21st century NASA. “They are people who run into dangerous situations,” says Jordan. Former collegiate athletes are also attractive for what Jordan calls their “teaming skills.” Still, the application leaves no mistake about how particular the talents required for an astronaut gig will be. 

“The duties of this position require moderate to arduous amounts of physical exertion involving walking, standing, heavy lifting, crouching, crawling and exposure to inclement weather. Are you willing to perform arduous physical activities as part of your duties?” reads one part of the form.

“Astronaut candidates and astronauts live, work, and train in remote, isolated, small, or confined spaces for prolonged periods of time,” reads another. “Are you willing to spend extended periods of time in remote, isolated, small or confined spaces?”

And then there is the one that can cause a lot of candidacies to come undone: “[Astronaut] training requires extensive travel…where family members are not always able to join. Are you willing to participate in extended travel and periods away from home?”

For Glover, who is married and the father of four girls, that question required a lot of thinking. “There is this myth of work-life balance,” he says. “I don’t use that term. This job changes your life and your relationships forever. Some astronauts have spouses and kids and some don't, but you still have parents and siblings and a whole life to manage.”

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Perhaps the most demanding part of the vetting process is the in-person interview with the NASA selection board, a committee of 10 to 12 people made up mostly of astronauts, as well as senior level NASA officials such as flight directors. One of the requirements for that meeting calls for candidates to write a short, one-page narrative on any topic they choose. For this, Glover took a chance, composing an essay he titled “Girls Like Astronauts.” The selection panel did not have to get far into what Glover wrote before realizing that the girls he was writing about were his daughters.

“When you first see the title it’s like, ‘Oh, gosh, what is this about?’” he says. “But then I talk about the romance of space and aviation, that it’s something I get to carry for a while and bring back to my girls. And it just might help them be proud of me.”

Glover took another chance when the board asked him about a mistake he had made in his life and what he learned from it. For a pilot hoping to take the next step up from jets to spacecraft, a near-disaster in the cockpit would seem like a topic to avoid, but Glover had had one such hair-raising episode during his Naval service, and he decided to tell the truth. The incident occurred when he was participating in an air show, flying off of the aircraft carrier George Washington near Japan. Most of the maneuvers the pilots flew were scripted, but Glover chose to improvise on one, flying over the water at 95% of the speed of sound, and then rotating to a nose down position before climbing again. The sky was clear except for one cloud, which turned out to be directly in his path, causing him to fly too low.

“I realized I could see bubbles in the water very clearly,” he says. “I just pulled the stick into my lap and I bottomed out at 32 feet above the water.”

Glover flew back to the carrier, apologized to the commander for what he had conceded was showboating and promised no such thing would ever occur again. A gunnery officer then invited Glover to take a moment of privacy in his office. He accepted and, when he was alone, cried.

“The board isn’t just looking for achievers,” Glover says. “Everyone has messed up in their lives, and it’s how you overcome it and what you learn about yourself that counts.” That bit of candor evidently impressed the selection committee—setting Glover off on a trajectory that, in 18 months, will take him to the moon.

I, almost surely, will not be following. Barely hours after I submitted my application I received a polite acknowledgement from NASA. “Thank you for your interest…and for applying to be an astronaut candidate,” it read. “You have successfully submitted your initial application.”

My success is certain to stop there. Still, we live in a time when even the likes of me can dream a little dream and indulge a little fantasy. Space travel was once the province of only a particular kind of person—a particular kind of man. That, happily, has changed. We don’t all get to fly, but we all get to see ourselves in the people who do.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com