NASA has some space to fill
Stars and Stripes June 29, 2003
Maj. Jason Wood’s first memory is that of stars and television.
It wasn’t a human celebrity that sent the 5-year-old racing through his parents’ Las Vegas home that day. It was the Saturn V rocket he watched shudder and fume toward the stars.
“It was so exciting, the only thing I could think to do was run like the wind,” remembers the Air Force officer, now stationed in Keflavik, Iceland.
That day would determine the direction of Wood’s life: He immediately planned to become an astronaut. At 8, he decided to join the Air Force “to follow in the footsteps of Mercury 7.” Studies would follow at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Wood, an aeronautical engineer and tanker pilot, is now one of about 3,000 applicants hoping to join the first class of astronauts selected by NASA since 1999. The space program typically selects astronauts every two years, but skipped the last cycle due to a lack of openings.
Now a July 1 application deadline approaches, and NASA plans to select about a dozen new astronauts. It’s a time of gravity not only because of the slim odds or the infrequency of selections. Next month, investigators plan to release findings on what sent space shuttle Columbia streaking into sparks over Texas, killing its crew of seven. It will also free NASA to renew its romance with manned space flight, space stations and dreams of Mars.
“That will basically kick off, from NASA’s standpoint, the return to normal flight function,” said Kyle Herring, a spokesman at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Investigators say a flying chunk of insulation foam likely damaged the shuttle during liftoff. The board will call for new safeguards, and has suggested flights could resume within a year. Herring said NASA plans to revive the shuttle program in December, though that’s more of a budgetary and planning target.
Despite the tragedy, NASA has gotten the expected number of applicants and even saw a threefold increase in weeks following the Feb. 1 accident, said Duane Ross, who manages astronaut selection. Ross saw a similar spike in applications after the Challenger disaster in 1986. His office attributes it to an unknowable cocktail of patriotism, news coverage and American stubbornness.
About 400 of this year’s applicants will come from the military.
“We have military and civilian, pilots and nonpilots, scientists, medical doctors, chemists and astronomers,” Ross said. “You name it, we get an application.”
Military officers have better odds than most, however, as most NASA pilots come from the Air Force and Navy. About one-third of mission specialists are also from the military. They apply through their branch, and the services screen the packages.
Those who make it to NASA tend to be officers in their mid-30s. The ones behind the controls have test pilot experience. Mission specialists are math and science savvy and hold advanced degrees.
Wood, 35, watched footage of the Columbia’s wispy plunge on television along with the rest of the world. This time, he turned to his pregnant wife and asked what she thought of his pursuing the same path as those who had just perished.
She told him that if space was his calling, she was behind him.
“I’ve been to the cape and been out to Vandenberg Air Force Base [Calif.] and seen military space launches,” Wood said. “And I always feel left behind.”
To help his chance, he applied twice in once cycle, once for a pilot slot and another for a job as a mission specialist.
Like many in, or aspiring to join, the space program, Wood speaks of watching liftoff almost as a religious experience: “It feels like your chest is vibrating, and the roar can be quite deafening. It almost feels like an emotional release, because of all the saturation of your senses. And it’s just magnificent to watch this big piece of metal rise into the air, controlled. It’s just the enormous strength of it all ... the noise and the thump. It’s beautiful.”
Navy Cmdr. Heidi Stefanyshyn-Piper, a diver turned astronaut, similarly described her first time watching a shuttle launch — a bright flame first, then seconds later, the tremor and rumble.
“Light,” she reminded, “travels faster than sound.”
Stefanyshyn-Piper will rocket at impossible speeds herself. Her first flight will be the second launch following the Columbia investigation.
“It’s difficult being in a holding pattern right now,” she said. Being in the military, however, taught her how to wait.
“We fully understand what’s going on, and have to let the investigation run its course,” she said. “Of course, there’s a human side to things, because I want to go fly.”
When Columbia exploded, it affected her profoundly. She knew the crew. One-fourth of NASA’s shuttle fleet had been destroyed. And the disaster cast a shadow over her first flight.
She insisted her mission will be not only safe, but also one of the safest in history.
“I even asked my husband what he thought about it. … He said, ‘You’re the second flight, and that’s probably going to be one of the safest flights there is.’ It’ll probably be safer than 10 years out.”
As a former diver who repaired ships, Stefanyshyn-Piper’s job is to suit up for spacewalks and work on equipment in the zero-G void, a feat not unlike that of braving the briny deep. Astronauts train for spacewalks underwater.
It’s not something the commander ever envisioned. Initially, she hoped to become a Navy pilot, but her vision wasn’t good enough. Someone suggested she try NASA as a mission specialist.
Stefanyshyn-Piper failed to land an interview the first time, something common even for successful astronauts. Then, years later while working with a dive team doing ship repairs at Norfolk, Va., her husband phoned her. NASA wanted an interview.
She flew to Houston for the standard week of physicals and interviews. It was exciting and daunting and impossible.
“Nobody else I knew had ever been to NASA,” she said.
Stefanyshyn-Piper was so impressed with the competition — everyone from geniuses to fighter jocks — that she prepared for the inevitable return to diving.
“They all wander around the entire week in awe of each other,” said Ross, who has worked on selecting every class of shuttle astronauts. “It’s kind of a humbling experience for all of them.”
In fact, NASA wouldn’t have it any other way. Ross said swaggering overconfidence is a deal-breaker.
For Stefanyshyn-Piper, there was no reason to worry. She was named a member of the class of 1996.
The space agency looks for candidates with a special mix of brains and practical know-how. Stefanyshyn-Piper’s engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and diving skills made her perfect for work on the international space station, the first module of which was launched in 1998.
Successful candidates are typically similar to previous astronauts; NASA uses the resumes of current and former astronauts as templates for choosing new ones. Senior astronauts also dominate NASA selection committees.
In their cover letters, many candidates relate stories similar to that of Wood’s.
“They either saw the first Apollo landing, or the first shuttle launch, and have wanted to do it ever since,” said Teresa Gomez, assistant manager of astronaut selection.
After selection, astronauts face a long wait. Though she joined NASA in ’96, Stefanyshyn-Piper’s mission wasn’t scheduled until May 2003. Columbia postponed it indefinitely.
“There’s a basic training syllabus,” Ross said. “That takes at least a year. It can take upwards of two years in a big class.” Then, there’s mission-specific training anywhere from nine months to a year and a half.
“In the absolute best case, from the time you walk in to the time you’re on the launch pad, it takes about three years.”
More often, it takes around six.
The majority of astronauts do fly in the end — 246 of the 311 astronauts selected since the space program’s beginnings have launched. NASA currently boasts 160 astronauts, all but 16 of them Americans, according to spokeswoman Kacy Kossum.
Some who work around astronauts talk about them nearly as sacrosanct, a chosen people. But they reserve a special reverence for the Columbia crew.
Second Lt. Douglas Huttenlocker, now stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, spent his previous tour with the Department of Defense Manned Space Flight Support Office in Florida. Huttenlocker was a master sergeant at the time, traveling the globe as a rescue expert inspecting emergency shuttle landing sites.
One person he worked with was Navy Capt. Dave Brown — former gymnast, flight surgeon, pilot and Columbia crewman.
“You stood around him, and you knew the guy was meant to be there,” Huttenlocker says. “He had a passion within him to do what he was meant to do.”
And he was humble. Huttenlocker tells a story about a boy at an air show who approached Brown for an autograph, thinking he was a Blue Angels pilot. When Brown said he wasn’t one of the performers, the boy ran off with a sarcastic, “Oh, never mind then.”
Brown never told the kid he was talking to an astronaut.
Huttenlocker was angered by media coverage of the death of Columbia. He tired of watching archive footage of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three men in 1967, and the break up of the shuttle Challenger that killed its crew of seven.
“Every one of those people on board knew the risks of space travel,” he said, “and would gladly give their lives for the benefits that space travel has brought mankind.”
Wood, the aspiring astronaut, also adopts a mystical tone.
“Our destiny is not here completely, just locked on this planet,” he said. “We need to explore. We’re going to explore.”
He talks of a future where these explorers frequent not only the moon, but also Mars, “and when we step beyond the solar system, and whatever physics allows, I want to do something more than talk about it.”
Sometime between August and December, Wood will find out. If he’s not accepted this cycle, Wood will apply again. There’s still a 5-year-old boy inside him, running like the wind, pushing him to try and try.
“I want to go to my grave knowing that I gave it my all,” Wood said, “and they said ‘No.’”
How do I become an astronaut?
It’s tough. The space program uses previous and present astronauts as templates for new ones. It accepts applications continuously, but selects astronauts only every two years or less. And with about 3,000 applicants in a given cycle, NASA gets what NASA wants.
Being an officer in your mid-30s is good. Fliers should have jet experience as well as stints as test pilots. Mission specialists can be in the military or civilians, but should have advanced degrees in math, medicine, engineering or other science.
NASA also wants practical experience. For example, Cmdr. Laurel Clark, of the final Columbia crew, was a submariner. Living in a sub for months is analogous to life in space.
Keep applying. Most astronauts didn’t make it their first time. Military members should apply through their service. Civilians can also try to land a job at NASA to improve their astronaut pedigree.
For more information, log on to: www.nasajobs.nasa.gov/astronauts
— Ward Sanderson