Fly Me To The Moon, No Really

If you live in the UK, as I do, then it’s basically impossible for you not to know that a British astronaut got launched into space yesterday. His name is Tim Peake and he is now safely ensconced inside the International Space Station. Many people will be inspired by his adventure and so I thought I’d give you a little info on how to follow in his, ummm, orbit.

Unfortunately for those of us in Europe it is not easy. The European Space Agency has only ever recruited three times in the past 40 years so I wouldn’t hold your breath. Across the pond NASA opened up another round of recruitment just this week, but it is only open to US citizens.

If any of my American readers do want to take the plunge, though, the initial criteria aren’t overly stringent. Gone are the days when they would only recruit the best pilots that the military had to offer. Whilst they still have an important role to play, there is a much greater emphasis on academics and engineers these days.

The minimum requirement is a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university in either engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. This must then be supplemented with at least 3 years of ‘related, progressively responsible, professional experience’. If you stayed in academia and got an advanced degree then that gives you a better chance and can also count towards the experience you can be said to have. Teachers are also considered to be qualified.

On the physical side you must have good eyesight (it says ‘correctable’ but doesn’t specify whether glasses or contacts or both are allowed), low blood pressure and be between 5’2” and 6’3”, which means I would barely scrape in at the top end. If they like the looks of your application then there follows a week long program of interviews, medical checks and orientation. If you make it that far then you’re already in the top 0.1%.

The lucky people who are selected to go onto the actual astronaut candidate training program must become a qualified SCUBA diver so that you can train in their zero G training pool, you must be comfortable swimming and treading water in a full flight suit and you must also learn to cope with emergency situations at both high and low atmospheric pressures. Candidates are also subjected to the famous ‘vomit comet’, a modified 747 that makes a series of parabolic maneuvers that gives the sensation of weightlessness for up to 20 seconds at a time; trainees would be expected to endure 40 or so maneuvers per day. Most people, even those who are into rollercoasters get sick at some point during this part of training. Studies have shown that current astronauts rarely admit to getting motion sickness but that, after retirement, 70-80% say that they regularly did. Also, whilst it isn’t monitored who is taking them, there are a lot of anti-emetics taken on the ISS.

Other areas that must be covered include International Space Station systems training, Extravehicular Activity (spacewalk) skills training, Robotics skills training, Russian Language training and aircraft flight readiness training. If, and it’s a big if, you make it through all of that then you will officially become an employee of the Federal Government and you can expect to earn in the region of $50,00-80,000 depending on your qualifications and experience.

Typically a long term mission would be 3-6 months aboard the ISS and this would entail about 3 years intensive training beforehand that would involve long periods of time away from home. Assuming you get picked for a mission and survive the most dangerous part of the whole affair, the launch, once you are on the ISS you will have a new set of problems to worry about.

The lack of gravity means that your muscles will begin to waste away as you don’t make as much use of them. You will lose about 1-2% of your bone density per month in orbit. You will be exposed to an increase in radiation as you won’t have the atmosphere to protect you from harmful energetic particles from the sun. Kidney stones are a common problem as are sleep deprivation, hearing loss (you’re effectively living inside an industrial machine) and sight loss; astronauts tend to become more far sighted as the shape of the eyeball changes. The decreased gravity means more of your blood and other fluids flow up to your head, as more cerebrospinal fluid pushes its way upwards it squeezes against the eye flattening it out. And we haven’t even got to the psychological problems yet. Perhaps the worst part of all, though, is that for your 6 month sojourn you are only allotted a 1.5kg personal baggage allowance. Now that’s what I call travelling light.

Still want to be an astronaut?

I do.

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I. Love. This. Photo. Image courtesy of NASA
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