Some facts about spaceflight as a career choice – courtesy of astronaut Andrew Fuestel – that bring the prospect of joining NASA and reaching for the stars, a bit closer down to Earth
Growing up I dreamt of becoming an astronaut. Still do.
I even checked out SpaceX’s website recently to see if maybe there were openings I’d be suitable for.
(Currently, there do not seem to be any positions that meet my particular set of skills. I’m looking for something along the lines of Test Passenger if you hear of anything).
But the idea of becoming an astronaut has always seemed so appropriately out there and few ever entertain the notion seriously.
Spacey is in
However, personalities like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson – people who clearly have a problem with the word ‘can’t’ – have made incredible strides of late in private spaceflight. They have brought the whole notion of becoming an astronaut, if not into the binders of high school guidance counselors just yet, at least into the general atmosphere of what’s realistically achievable.
Then there was the recent asteroid landing by a deep space probe, launched and guided by the European Space Agency (ESA), and the return of several International Space Station (ISS) personnel shortly thereafter.
Touchdown for Philae on the surface of comet #67P! Watch live via ESA.int/Rosetta About the Rosetta mission: Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its member states and NASA. Rosetta’s Philae lander is provided by a consortium led by DLR, MPS, CNES and ASI. Find out more at: rosetta.esa.int #esa #europeanspaceagency #rosetta #comets #cometwatch #space #science #exploration #CometLanding
These efforts foster the impression that space is closer to the average 9 to 5er than ever before. Could anyone become an astronaut these days? Would you want to become one?
How many times has reality proved to be a little less tasty than expected once tried. Every second serving of doughnuts is like that. Perhaps space food, and space life in general, is the same way after week two and onward.
Ask an astronaut
So I decided to reach out to NASA and see if I could speak with an actual, real life astronaut for a first hand account of what it takes, what it’s like, what do you give up and what do you get for launching yourself into orbit?
Playing email tag with a very nice NASA PR rep (thanks for everything, Janet), I was finally put in touch with 14-year NASA veteran Andrew Feustel (we can call him Andy – he said so), and was able to get the answers to most of my questions. Here now, I will share them with you.
The right stuff
First I wanted to know what it takes to be an astronaut.
Andy tells me he started out as a geophysicist working at Exxon for 3.5 years and in the mining industry for five before ending up at NASA, where he still works today.
Back when he first started, incoming NASA classes consisted of approximately 44 recruits, with 50% coming from the military and the other 50% from the private sector. Nowadays classes are down to about 8 recruits.
That’s a major drop, I note. Andy chalks it up to the scrapping of the shuttle program and some major reorganization in general.
Sadly, being a part of the usual Crème de la Crème chosen for the NASA program might not be enough. NASA has gotten creamier. You have to be extra creamy.
Practically speaking, if joining NASA is a real goal of yours, you first might want to think about either serving the U.S. for a spell in a military capacity or getting yourself a PhD in the sciences and applying that knowledge in the private sector. Whichever course you choose, make sure you cultivate a bonafide reputation for excellence.
We are pleased to inform you…
Okay, so you work hard, grab some private sector experience points, apply and get accepted. Now what?
Does every NASA astronaut go to space? Do you even have to have been in space to be called an astronaut?
The short answer is, no. According to Andy, most astronauts want to go to space and do so at least once in their career, but it’s not a must.
So what do astronauts do otherwise?
Andy likens the first two years of the NASA program to boot camp. There’s a lot of training on the technical aspects of the ISS and a lot of team building exercises, training to work together under severely stressful conditions.
Trust falls are probably out: Ya know, cuz the whole zero gravity thing, but I’m sure they have other methods.
It beats getting shot at
The whole reference to stressful conditions leads me to my next question. Being an astronaut clearly involves sacrifice. A mission to the ISS could last upwards of six months. That’s six months where your life on Earth is put on hold: family, friends, etc. How do those considerations factor into choosing to become an astronaut?
Andy says the extended periods away from home are actually not that big a deal, especially not when you think of people who relocate for years at a time to foreign countries in the private sector or to a military deployment overseas.
In fact, says Andy, considering many soldiers sustain live fire from people trying to kill them over the course of their six months away from home, the idea of being an astronaut is not all that crazy. Barring some sort of catastrophic failure, human spaceflight is far safer than some other patriotic career paths.
I have to admit, I hadn’t thought of it like that. Still, people working overseas can fly out and visit loved ones, and vice versa. Even in the military, it’s dangerous but not as restrictive. On the ISS, you’re locked into extremely close quarters with the same people for an extended period of time. If things start getting a little too close for comfort, there’s no going out for a walk to blow off steam.
Andy laughs at this. “No, you can’t,” he agrees. If you’re going to go for a walk outside, it’s called a space walk – and those are not generally sanctioned for steam blowing purposes.
Honey, I’m home
What about after an astronaut comes back from space. Do most people stay on in the program offering support to new recruits or is there turnover to the private sector? On the one hand, I can see the caliber of professionalism that astronauts represent being in high demand wherever they go, but on the other hand, their skill sets are rather specialized.
Andy confirms this dichotomy. As it is with most careers in most industries, he says it depends on the individual and what opportunities present themselves. Some stay. Some leave. If they stay, there’s a stable government career ahead of them at NASA. Leaving does pose its challenges. Andy admits that for him to return to the energy sector would be problematic, having been away from it for so long. Things change, technologies advance, and many careers don’t forgive a long hiatus away from the scene.
What about the burgeoning private space sector? Is there active recruitment going on from companies like Blue Horizon and SpaceX?
Definitely, says Andy. Many former astronauts are recruited and move on to lucrative careers in the private sector. But again, every individual’s case is different. There are no direct funnels from NASA to the private space sector and certainly no guarantees.
What’s the turnover rate look like?
Andy explains that when he started working for NASA, there were about 120 people in the program. Now there are around 40. So people leave. They retire, they move on to the private sector. It’s like any other industry in that respect.
Does NASA appreciate the competition from the private sector?
Absolutely, says Andy with genuine enthusiasm. Anyone looking to advance the cause of human spaceflight is welcome. Besides, he clarifies, at this point it’s not as much competition as it is support. NASA are really the only ones in the U.S. sending people into space. At the moment, the private sector is more involved in support, resupplying provisions such as food, water, and clothing. Science experiments are also a big part of what happens onboard.
Finally, we come to that awkward point in the interview where I must talk money. No true in-depth study of the practical pros and cons surrounding the choice of spaceflight as a career would be complete without discussing salary.
I ask, and apparently there was no need for squeamishness. As government employees salaries are a matter of public record. Astronauts are compensated according to the GS payscale, standing for General Schedule. GS employees have a set salary range that increases according to the Grade level of an employee. Grades range from GS-1 through GS-15. Within each Grade, there are additional salary increases according to Steps, of which there are 10. Each Grade and Step lasts for a set time frame with some advancements coming by way of performance.
Astronaut Grades range between GS-13 and GS-15. As such, the lowest earning astronaut (GS-13 at Step 1) will be pulling away approximately $71,600, while the highest earning astronaut (GS-15 at Step 10) will be making approximately $129,500. A modest living compared to private sector potential for top notch talent, would be putting it mildly, but it’s not a bad living on the face of it.
Anyway, Andy tells me it’s not about the money for most people. Sure they need to support their families, but in his eyes, “We’re all just really lucky to go to space.”
How true. And I’m sure the view from the office doesn’t hurt much either.