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The Right Stuff: Challenges of Becoming an Astronaut

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When you're a kid people will say that you can be anything you want when you grow up, but what job could be better than astronaut? To roam the stars like Han Solo and Capt. (insert favorite Starship captain here), but the training and physical requirements might be a bit more challenging that your 8 year old self ever imagined.

The NASA selection process is long, and the competition fierce. Plenty of women and men who might have the right stuff are turned away every year. So, what exactly IS the right stuff? Well, according to the NASA requirements applicants must at least have a bachelor’s degree in fields like engineering, biological science, or mathematics. Many astronauts have master’s degrees or a PhD, plus at least three years of experience in that field. Military candidates can substitute 1,000 command hours in a jet after earning their degree and teachers are given an exception to the field work requirement.

Once you have fulfilled the educational requirements the real challenges begin.

Astronauts must then pass a vigorous physical, posses 20/20 vision, a normal resting blood pressure level, be between 62 and 75 inches, and be in extremely good shape. With no chance to turn the ship around for a medical emergency, physical strength and good health are extremely important for astronauts.

If you make it past the physical you are in store for two years of “basic” training including scuba certification, underwater military training, high and low atmospheric pressure exposure and rides in the “vomit comet”, a reduced gravity aircraft, all designed to help prepare candidates for the weightlessness of space.

In this video famed theoretical physicist, cosmologist and writer Stephen Hawking gets a taste of astronaut training. 

Once you’ve completed training the wait begins. It could be years before you are selected for a flight. If you are lucky enough to get that far, another couple of years of training, plus more class work and simulations gets you ready to finally venture into space.

The average space flight these days is about six months on the ISS (international space station) although a lucky few have been chosen to spend as long as a year in space in efforts to see just what long term space travel does to the human body.

Maybe a little more than you thought? Well, no need to totally give up on your dream. If you didn’t make it to space camp as a kid, adult and family programs are now available. Adults 18-99 are welcome to sign up for Adult Space Camp in Huntsville, AL, where you will learn about the history of space flight as well getting a chance to catch some serious Gs on the 1/6th gravity chair and Multi-Axis Trainer.

Of course, if you’re only interested in the chance to experience weightlessness, flights on the “Vomit Comet” are available from Zero G Corporations for around $5,000…but you do get a hat.

Space camp and zero G flights out of your price range? Try these NASA approved kits from littlebits that let you try out some NASA level engineering and experimentation.

These kits allow kids and adults to build scaled down versions of the ISS and Mars rover, among other things, and include lessons and experiments written and used by NASA scientists.

Though not all of us have the right stuff to blast off and explore the stars, NASA scientists have made it their mission to encourage young and old to embrace science, explore the world and the space all around us on their own. Whether it is attending a space camp or taking a telescope out into the dessert, generations of humans have felt the pull of the stars. Perhaps in the distant future space travel will not be the dangerous, arduous thing that it is today, and normal Janes and Joes can float above earth, but for now here’s a video to tide you over.


Image: NASA

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