There comes a time in the life of almost every little boy or girl when he or she dreams of becoming an astronaut. Toy spaceships, makeshift spacesuits and video games serve to ignite the imagination of the young would-be space travelers. In the vast majority of cases, the dream is short-lived and replaced with other games and interests. In very few cases, the dream persists well into adulthood, and turns into a full-fledged career.
My interest in space travel came relatively late for me, towards the end of my teenage years, and like many space enthusiasts it started by learning about the Apollo program of the 1960s and 1970s. Later, I would stay up all night watching NASA TV during a space shuttle mission, with the hope of catching the occasional technical chatter between Mission Control and the shuttle crew, even if it was unintelligible to me. That’s how I became familiar with terms like “Go for auto-sequence start”, which referred to the space shuttle’s computers taking over the final 31 seconds of the launch countdown, or “On at the 90”, a call issued during landing to confirm that the shuttle had the proper heading in its final 90-degree turn before being aligned with the runway.
Years have gone by, and I still haven’t found anything more exciting than watching a space rocket being launched (on a screen; I have yet to watch a live launch). Like thousands of other people who apply to become NASA astronauts every time a selection is announced, I hope to one day be strapped inside a space vehicle, waiting for the countdown to reach the zero mark, with all the concentration, excitement and maybe a little dose of healthy apprehension that waiting for launch involves, and to travel to Earth orbit, to the Moon and to some asteroid, in preparation for the pinnacle of human exploration: a trip to Mars.
Of course, it is easier said than done; the job of astronaut is possibly the most difficult one to obtain. The competition is fierce, and there will always be hundreds of applicants whose qualifications surpass the necessary NASA requirements. Typically, only around 10 or 20 candidates are selected each round, roughly every two to four years (it is still unclear how astronaut selection will operate in the burgeoning private spaceflight sector, although it might proceed along similar lines). For that reason, I have taken it upon myself to acquire as many skills as possible t0 help me in my chances of becoming an astronaut.
My PhD in theoretical astrophysics already fulfills the basic NASA requirement of academic preparation in the physical or biological sciences, engineering, or mathematics. My Open Water SCUBA diver certification will be useful as well: NASA Astronaut Candidates go through spacewalk training, which takes place in a huge pool at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, as it is called, allows trainees to work in a simulated “weightless” environment such as they would experience in space, and this sensation of apparent “weightlessness” is well known by SCUBA divers, when they remain neutrally buoyant at depth. However, this year I would like to continue my diving education and take an Advanced Open Water course, which will allow me to improve my diving skills, such as buoyancy control and increasing bottom time. Also, the AOW certificate will be the starting point to exciting different types of diving, like fish identification, cave diving, and wreck diving, all of which I’ve been looking forward to practice.
In 2013 I’m also starting my private pilot education. Astronaut applicants with aviation licenses are valued by NASA because work inside an airplane cockpit is similar in nature to what happens inside a spacecraft, in terms of cockpit procedures and interactions between crew members, as well as between the crew and air traffic/mission control. Working towards a private pilot license carries a huge time and financial commitment, but the reward is being able to fly anytime, anywhere!
Finally, this year I’m taking a mountaineering course in the beautiful Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. The course also carries a leadership component. Mountain climbing not only requires learning specific techniques to get yourself up safely to the summit, but it also demands that you work as part of a team for a successful expedition. This is a necessity for any astronaut crew during complex and potentially dangerous space missions. For example, when missions to the Moon become commonplace in the future, astronauts with different backgrounds (pilots, scientists and technicians) will need to interact efficiently to accomplish prospecting, exploration, and base-building goals. They will have to have in-depth training in expeditionary crew behavior, in addition to the necessary skills to work on a difficult, unknown terrain. In this regard, mountaineering is a great self-confidence and team-building exercise.
So these are my plans for this year. I will document my activities in future postings!