In the Apollo days, NASA preferred their astronauts to be of the cigar-smoking male test pilot variety. Although less nicotine is usually involved now and NASA removed its "no girls allowed" sign, the path from military to space remains clear. But NASA has also added a second type of astronaut, called a mission specialist. No wings needed to qualify. Instead, a mission specialist can sub in scientific or engineering experience.For 30 years, from 1981 to 2011, US astronauts looked forward to riding the space shuttle to low-Earth orbit and, potentially, sojourning on the Space Station. But after 2011, when the agency retired the shuttles, any American going to space first needed a passport and a plane ticket to Russia.So far, astronauts have mostly spent time in tiny metal boxes floating near our home planet. In the future, though, NASA plans to send them farther afield: to an asteroid and then to Mars. The skills a spacefarer will need to lasso a space rock or start a colony on the Red Planet differ from the skills needed to carousel around Earth. At the same time, private companies are ramping up their suborbital options—space planes that send people more than 60 miles above Earth's surface, which some dramatically call "the edge of space."The cheapest of those flights will run around $95,000. Many of those seats will be filled by the 1 percent. But someone has to fly the spaceship, which won't be ferrying tourists 24/7/365.25.
"One thing I learned is don't stress about it"
In September 2007, Shiro had been working at the Tsunami Center for two years when NASA put out a call for new astronauts. "Frequent travel may be required," the job posting stated. Shiro started his paperwork and a blog: www.astronautforhire.com. With the blog, he aimed to become the go-to source for information about the selection process, which he felt was opaque."They want you to be yourself," he said. "To show up and be able to respond to what they throw at you. … But there's a real thirst from applicants to know more."He worked with another website called AsHos (short for "Astronaut Hopefuls") to demystify the dream. He helped nail down NASA's timeline, rank its preferences, quantify its previous selections, and—once it started—detail in the interview process based on first-hand accounts from the ascended elite. (A great deal of information is available today on NASA's own websites, Schierholz pointed out.)Unfortunately, Shiro could not count himself among the fortunate few. He remained in the "highly qualified" category, a set that included just 449 of the original 3,564 applicants. Some of those 449 would go on to a battery of psychological evaluations, medical probings, personality quizzes, and tests of their ability to drive robot cars."They're splitting hairs, looking for reasons to throw you out," Shiro told me. "And at the end of the day, it comes down to how good a fit you are. They ask themselves, 'Would you want to be stuck on a little spaceship with this person?'"
"They're splitting hairs, looking for reasons to throw you out."