Who wants to be an astronaut?
Sensory deprivation. Cultural isolation. Physical confinement. Throw in relearning every menial task for microgravity, the lack of privacy and the disturbed sleep-wake cycle, and you can be sure your life will never be the same (1,2).
Yeah, the job description for being an astronaut is a little intense. Especially since you also need to be intelligent, physically fit, and, preferably, a pilot (3). Hopefully you’re also willing to take sponge baths, eat vacuum packed food and drink filtered pee (2, although NASA astronauts recently ate the first lettuce grown in microgravity, 4).
Given all this, it seems qualified job applicants would be few and far between. But it turns out that weightlessness and the world-class view attracts quite the pool of applicants. In 2013, NASA selected only 8 out of over 6,000 applicants to move onto training (5). A crucial part of this selection is screening for applicants with the “right stuff” to handle the stresses of space life.
The “right stuff” is a cluster of traits, specifically Instrumentality, Expressivity, Mastery, Work and Verbal, that NASA uses to predict who will be successful astronauts (6). You can take this personality quiz modeled off the ESA’s personality test materials, to see if you’re adaptable, smart and conscientious enough, but let’s see if you can handle some of the tougher situations that come up in the life of an astronaut.
Scenario 1: You’re performing maintenance on the outside of your spacecraft when toxic chemicals come spewing out of a nozzle. Space is pretty cold, and these chemicals immediately freeze onto your spacesuit. You –
- Go back inside the spacecraft to thaw in the air lock
- Slowly chip the chemical off your spacesuit with a tool
- Stay outside of the spacecraft to thaw in space
In 2001, two NASA astronauts that were installing cooling lines for the research payload aboard the ISS. A bunch of ammonia coolant escaped from a defective valve, and the extremely toxic chemical froze an inch thick on the spacesuit of astronaut Robert Curbeam. Both astronauts remained outside for an entire orbit to allow the Sun to evaporate the frozen ammonia from Robert’s spacesuit. After the astronauts returned on-board, the whole crew wore oxygen masks for thirty minutes to make sure the air filtering systems eliminated any remaining ammonia (7).
Scenario 2: You’ve just embarked on a spacewalk to collect geologic samples when your partner loses grip of their non-essential but very expensive bag of tools. As the bag slowly floats away, you –
- Toss something at the bag to change its trajectory so it can be easily grabbed
- Let the bag go and admit you didn’t check that the bag was tethered to your partner
- Let the bag go and point out that your bag was securely tethered to you
- Quickly grab the bag or yell at your partner to grab it
In 2008 an astronaut aboard the ISS forgot to tether her $100,000 tool-bag to her space suit, resulting in the loss of “one of the largest items ever lost by a spacewalking astronaut” (8). Because the slightest wrong move can spell disaster when in space, she decided not to go after it. Still, coming back on-board and facing the other ISS astronauts was tough. Camaraderie is important when you’re trapped together in space, and her partner publicly stated that he was just as guilty since he didn’t double-check everything.
So maybe you’re at the end of this post thinking “HA! Those scenarios were a piece of cake, and I can sleep strapped to a wall any day. What’s the next step?” If you’re one of the lucky applicants NASA selects for a casual two year training at the Johnson space center, you’ll probably get to simulate weightlessness in a 6.2 million gallon tank of water and test out 50 foot robotic arms:
You’ll also undergo some psychological training, which doesn’t look very interesting in pictures. One thing you’ll do are “death sims”, or going over the details of your possible demise:
A death sim starts with a scenario – “Chris is seriously injured on orbit,” say – and over the next few hours, people work through their own roles and responses. Every five to ten minutes whoever is running the exercise tosses what we call a “green card” into the mix: in essence, a new wrinkle. (…) One green card might be, “We’ve just received word from the Station: Chris is dead.”(…) Okay, what are we going to do with his corpse? There are no body bags on Station, so should we shove it in a spacesuit and stick it in a locker? But what about the smell? Should we send it back to Earth on a resupply ship and let it burn up with the rest of the garbage on re-entry? Jettison it during a spacewalk and let it float away into space?” (9)
Once you make it through all this, you’re ready to fly*. If it helps, you won’t be up there alone; NASA astronauts on the ISS meet at least once a week with psychologists and “strength coaches” to support them throughout this life changing experience.
Citations and further reading
9) An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything by Chris Hadfield