The Final Frontier

Today was the day I decided to apply to the astronaut program.

I’ve been toying with the idea for awhile, and everything kind of clicked tonight.

Going to Caltech for grad school was the first step. The university (through its affiliate JPL) is closely tied to the space industry and campus is filthy with space nerds. JPL’s beautiful baby, the Curiosity Rover, landed on Mars days before I arrived in Pasadena, and I think I watched the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video a dozen times during my orientation. It’s not uncommon for former astronauts to stop by campus for a meeting or lecture.

Getting physically stronger over the last couple of years was the next step. I know I can learn textbook stuff as needed (that’s all I did for the first 22 years of my life), but I wasn’t sure I had the physical toughness and mental grit to make it through astronaut training. Now I think I at least have a reasonable chance of surviving.

Reading the books and memoirs written by astronauts gave me another push. Most recently, Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets got me thinking about how this selfish career path would affect (and by “affect” I mean traumatize) my family. It wasn’t just a ridiculous hypothetical – Jay and I had a serious discussion about how astronaut training would change our long-term plans.

I mentioned the idea to a couple of friends, jokingly dropped it into cocktail party conversation. I laughed it off. I asked myself, Am I qualified? Do I even want this? But then I looked into it. I’m not obviously unqualified. I thought about it some more. Why not me?

This morning, as I was making breakfast, I watched NASA’s live stream of an emergency space walk on the International Space Station. The first thing I heard was astronaut Scott Kelly informing Mission Control, “I hit it twice. It’s moving. I think that fixed it,” referring to a multi-million dollar piece of equipment, while dangling on the outside of a giant, pressurized tin can in space. This is insane. And amazing.

Later in the morning, I had a phone call with a friend of a friend who made it through the first two rounds of the astronaut selection process in the last call and is currently reapplying. She was sweet and gave me lots of “Zen and the Art of Trying to be an Astronaut” advice: Do what you love to the best of your ability, and your passion, dedication, and skill will show. Don’t try to be the person you think they want. Lots of people prepare with scuba training, flight school, learning Russian, but you have no control over the process and receive no feedback, so this pursuit cannot be your entire life. The best strategy is to do your best at your science, and train to be an astronaut as a hobby. Then apply and see what happens. That doesn’t sound so bad!

Lastly, tonight after dinner, I watched SpaceX’s live stream of the first successful landing of a reusable rocket powerful enough to achieve orbit (compared to the smaller sub-orbital rocket landed by Blue Orbital recently). When the SpaceX engineers and staff saw that the first stage Falcon-9 standing upright on the landing site, they lost their fucking minds. Cheers, screams, and fist pumps abounded. Space exploration, in all its forms, is inspirational. It is awe-inspiring. And it is really goddamn cool. 

How could you not want to be a part of that?

The astronaut application process is a crapshoot. There are many more qualified applicants than there are positions available. And it only gets harder after you get in: astronauts spend most of their time pressing the flesh on endless NASA PR tours or helping with projects that are only tangentially related to their own flight opportunities.

But isn’t it worth it for that one-in-a-million chance of exploring the Final Frontier?

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