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What It’s Like to Be in the Running to Be an Astronaut

Can you sprint-swim through an aquatic obstacle course and then memorize a code underwater that you have to recall the next day?

by Andrew Rader
Feb 21 2017, 1:00pm

Canada is hiring astronauts. Two lucky and highly qualified Canadians will soon be embarking on a new career that will take them off this planet. After being narrowed down from a field of over three thousand applicants, there are now 72 candidates—the two astronauts who are ultimately selected will be announced this summer—I am fortunate enough to be one of them. 

Let me tell you a little bit about what it's like to do a months-long interview for one of the most difficult-to-obtain jobs in the world. 

All the finalists are highly qualified. Some are scientists, others are medical doctors or fighter pilots. As for me, I've been a dedicated space enthusiast for my entire life, and have a doctoral degree in long duration human spaceflight engineering. My ambition in life is to advance the cause of sustainable off-Earth settlement of our species, and I've always wanted to take a direct part in that, which is why I applied for the job.

So how does one get to be an astronaut? The initial application is like the most comprehensive survey you've ever filled out. Printed, it would probably be 30 or more pages outlining every academic, professional, and physical accomplishment you've had a part in. 

The astronaut candidates during the first series of aptitude tests. Image: Canadian Space Agency

Then there's a detailed medical history that seems to delve into the condition of parts of your body you never knew you had. Allergic to something? Can you please describe every instance you encountered that thing, ever? There's an in-person medical, and this is just a preliminary screening. Later, you'll be comprehensively prodded and probed (no doubt to prepare you for the increased risk of alien abduction that comes with the job). 

They'll measure every part of your body to determine how you'll fit in a space suit. How will your muscles, joints, and bones degrade during intense underwater physical training sessions in a NASA pool—practice for future spacewalks—and later, during an extended period in microgravity? 

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Every aspect seems geared towards reinforcing the idea that space is an unhealthy place to live.

If you pass the preliminaries (fewer than 2 percent of people do), you might be lucky enough to be called in for more screening. That happened to me a few weeks ago, and I didn't really know what to expect during the three-day session. I thought it would be like an extended job interview, where I'd be bombarded with questions like "Can you describe your greatest strengths and weaknesses?", or "can you give an example of how you worked in a team to solve a problem?" 

It wasn't like that at all. It was boot camp. We were issued "uniforms," housed in barracks, woken up at 5:30 AM, marched around by drill sergeants, and kept up late.

The astronaut candidates during the first series of aptitude tests. Image: Canadian Space Agency

There was an extremely heavy emphasis on physical fitness. I'm in decent shape and I try to exercise at least once a week, but man were some of these candidates athletic. The phrase that sticks in my mind was one quipping  "Canada's next astronaut is going to be one fit [...colourful expletive...]".

Swimming, running, climbing, hauling ropes, running through obstacle courses carrying weights: we were moving all the time. Can you sprint-swim through an aquatic obstacle course and then memorize a code underwater that you have to recall the next day? 

Just at the point of maximum exhaustion, they would throw you into a written mathematical, logic, memory, coordination, or spatial awareness test, or maybe a team problem-solving activity. Or was it a psychological test? I'm pretty sure that some of the challenges had no solution, and were instead cleverly disguised tests of how we persevered in the face of failure. 

How would we interact with others when we were not only mentally and physically exhausted, but also frustrated? I suppose how we handle failure is at least as important as how we handle success. 

The astronaut candidates during the first series of aptitude tests. Image: Canadian Space Agency

All the while, you're under intense scrutiny like a science experiment, every action and word recorded on clipboards by hovering observers.

It's amazing how much we were able to squeeze into just a few short days, possibly the busiest of my life. Despite the gruelling pace, the entire experience was was uniquely satisfying. It was tremendous fun working together to solve problems with some of the brightest people on the planet. Despite being in competition with each other, by the end it felt like a reunion with a group of close friends brought together by a shared struggle. 

We'll know which of us makes it when the final two astronaut candidates are announced, and they'll start training for a future space mission by the end of the summer.

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