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How Do I Become an Astronaut?

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While unmanned space probes have provided a wealth of data about the solar system and the universe around us, there is nothing quite like the type of information that can be obtained from sending actual human beings into space. NASA Astronaut and Medical Education Branch Chief  Aunon recently spoke to students and faculty at her Alma Mater George Washington University (GW) to discuss what it takes to become an astronaut and what life is like on the job. The talk covered her journey from a little girl enamored by the space shuttle launches to serving as the Deputy Crew Surgeon for STS-127 and supporting medical operations for the International Space Station in Russia.

Become an Astronaut

Aunon’s passion for space started when she was young, sitting at home watching the space shuttle launches. Seeing her enthusiasm her father, a GW engineering alumni, sat down next to her and said “You want to work for NASA? You need to be an engineer.” Heeding her father’s words,  Aunon has received numerous honors and degrees, since receiving her B.S. in Electrical Engineering from GW in 1997. She took a left field and went into medicine receiving a Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 2001. In 2004, she completed a three year residency in internal medicine at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, Texas and an additional year as chief resident in the Internal Medicine Department in 2005. In 2007, she went on to complete an aerospace medicine residency at UTMB and a Master of Public Health. She graduated from the 20th NASA Astronaut Class in November, 2011. Board certified in internal and aerospace medicine, she now serves as the Medical Education Branch Chief for the Astronaut Office. Aunon credits much of her success to the experiences and support she received in her early years at GW. Small classrooms allowed for her to make one-to-one connections with her professors. A diverse campus with students from all around the world prepared her to work with the International Space Station. She was initially drawn to electrical engineering because of her love for biomedical signals, especially the electrical pathway to the heart. One of her most memorable experiences at GW was her senior design project, which involved creating a digital pulse meter from scratch. It taught her how to put theory into practice and the importance of presentation in engineering. What she likes to tell students, is “if you can’t present your work well, if you can’t write about it well, you’re useless to whomever you’re working for.

Qualities of a NASA Astronaut

Aunon highlighted some of the key qualities NASA looks for in its astronauts. Whether you’re in elementary school, high school, or college, she encourages students that wish to apply to NASA to focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Engineering is a great starting point. When you look among NASA’s astronaut core, whether they are civilian or military most of them have at least a master’s in engineering. Even among physicians like herself, engineering backgrounds are common fair. “The reason being is NASA is engineering. That’s how we got to the moon way back when. That’s how we fly today. Engineers are what make NASA run.” –  Aunon If you can speak to engineers, understand how engineers think, and problem solve like an engineer you will fit right into NASA’s culture. As a physician, she still approaches her role as an engineer: “People don’t see a human as being part of an engineering system, but you have to make sure that the human system works within the full engineering system to make the mission successful.” Education alone isn’t enough to become a NASA astronaut, in order to function in a human system; you need to be a team player. The average mission length these days is 6 months on board the International Space Station. You need to have excellent people skills in order to work with astronauts from Russia, United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. While the official language on the space station is English, American astronauts get to a fairly proficient level with Russian before they launch. Understanding each other’s languages is important in getting along with other crew members. Serena had much respect for her Japanese colleagues who had to learn English and then learn Russian using this second language. Some other key traits Serena highlighted include humility, being laid back, and having a good sense of humor. “Because the training gets really rough at times, and if you don’t maintain a good sense of humor, you won’t make it.

Selection Process

The selection process has changed greatly since the days of the Space Shuttle Program. Shuttle missions used to be on average 12 to 16 day’s duration. Today International Space Station missions can be 6 months long, and rigorous screening must be employed to ensure that astronauts are both physically and mentally fit for the trip. The selection process now consists of two rounds. In the first round you interview with a selection board of 13 astronauts. You get tours of the center and take some aptitude tests. An original roster of 6900 applicants was narrowed down to 120 people. The second round is almost purely medical and is the major difference between today and the space shuttle selection process. The medical selection round is very thorough and has a disqualification rate of upwards 25 to 30 percent. Candidates are scanned head to toe because a lot of time and money goes into the training of an astronaut. Contrary to popular belief, there is no official age limit and you don’t need perfect vision to become an astronaut. As long as you meet the physical and mental aptitudes required for the trip you have a fair chance of making it into space. In Serena’s class ages ranged from 30 to 43 years; she notes that NASA is aware that it may take people a while to gain the educational background necessary to stand a chance in

Most Memorable Astronaut Training

The spacesuit is called an EMU or Extravehicular Mobility Unit and weighs 150 to 200 pounds on Earth. Serena recounts how one of the most strenuous but most memorable training she experienced in the Astronaut class was training for a spacewalk in the neutral buoyancy lab at Johnson Space Center. Picture a gigantic swimming pool with a full scale mock-up of the International Space Station. Your suit is so heavy that you require assistance in order to put it on under Earth’s gravity. Once submerged under water the suit is pressurized to 4.3 psi above ambient pressure. As a result, even the simple act of opening and closing your hand requires work. Serena likened the experience to running a 6 hour marathon with only 20 ounces of water. The ultimate test of endurance, you have to learn how to fix parts of the space station from within the suit. She also says it’s the coolest part of training, because the suit is like your own “mini spaceship” fully outfitted with everything you need to survive the vacuum of space.

How long does it take to get into Space?

When crews would launch on the Soyuz rocket, they wouldn’t be able to dock for three days due to the orbital profile that they would use to get to the space station. For future flights however, an accelerated rendezvous is planned which will allow crews to dock within 24 hours. When you are in the Soyuz vehicle, ready to launch, your knees are crunched in an upright position while wearing your suit. The suit is outfitted with a diaper due to the extended time in orbit. Russians have already successfully tested the new profile with their progress vehicles. By decreasing the time in orbit it is possible to reduce the stress on astronauts docking with the space station.

Scale and Scope of the Space Station

Orbiting 240 miles above Earth and containing more than 15,000 cubic feet of habitable volume, the International Space Station is a state-of-the-art laboratory and serves at the forefront of a global effort to explore space. It stretches about the length of a football field and is about as spacious as a five person house. If everyone is working on different parts of the space station or busy with their own experiments, it is entirely possible to go a through a whole day without seeing their colleagues. Now that the space station is finally complete, most of these astronauts are sent there to perform experiments and maintenance. The typical day onboard the space station involves carrying out your experiments and performing repairs on the space station. Due to the lack of gravity, particulate matter or dust is a huge problem on the space station, so everyone has to be extra careful and diligent in cleaning the HEPA filters, their work environments and living quarters. The lack of gravity also has an adverse effect on the human body. Astronauts are subjected to a steady physical training regimen that involves exercising at least two hours a day to slow down muscle and bone decay.

Experiments onboard the Space Station

In general the main goal of the mission is to conduct experiments, and so the experience of an astronaut varies depending on what they are studying. When it comes to experiments, Serena Aunon’s personal favorites included those that deal with fluids and the human body. One of the major problems astronauts who live onboard the space station go through is a swelling of the optic nerve. The lack of gravity causes a massive fluid shift within the body towards the head, but the exact cause of the swelling in the eye still remains elusive. Everything from high sodium in space food to different CO2 levels in orbit could be contributing to the problem. As a result, they perform a lot of ultrasound diagnostics of the eye to see how the anatomy of the eyeball changes in space. The visual problems caused by the swelling of the optic nerve are the main reasons astronaut trips have been limited to 6 months. Because an astronaut’s vision is vital for their missions, understanding how space affects the eyes in the long term can help better prepare future astronauts for longer missions to mars and beyond.

Future Plans for United States Space Program

The United States Space Program is currently in a transition period. At the moment all travel to and from the space station is with the Russians on the Soyuz. In the future however, NASA plans to start launching astronauts from America again, this time using technologies developed from private companies like SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada. NASA has essentially turned over the job of taking astronauts to and from lower earth orbit to commercial companies. Serena estimates that by 2016 or 2017, America will once again be launching people to and from the space station. Once we find a way to get to and from low earth orbit in a cheaper, faster manner than ever before, it will be possible to open up space exploration to a lot of people on Earth. Virgin Galatic is aiming to launch people up to the age of 80 suborbitally. In the long term, NASA does hope to send people to an asteroid or Mars. Right now, Serena notes that the primary limiting factor preventing a manned flight to Mars is the human. The human body does not cope well in space. The lack of gravity leads to muscle and bone decay and a massive internal fluid shift within the body. Furthermore current technologies would not be able to adequately protect astronauts from radiation during an extended voyage to mars. Handling the gravity problem alone would be instrumental in moving plans for a Mars launch forward. Research is ongoing for an artificial gravity system using centrifuges, and if a portable gravity regimen can be supplied to help the human body stay healthy in space, it could open up possibilities for longer voyages. For now, understanding how space affects the human body under long periods of time, can help us develop countermeasures for longer voyages. Former ISS commander and shuttle flyer Scott Kelly will be the first person to stay at the International Space Station for a year starting in 2015. The data collected on his physiological and psychological state during the extended trip will be vital for future space missions. Another limiting factor is engineering design. Onboard the station astronauts have to constantly fix things. While the engineering designs are good they could be much better. A voyage to Mars would imply that the crew would need to have everything they need to handle repairs on their own as they wouldn’t be able to get much help from Earth. With improved engineering designs it is possible to create systems robust enough to last the extended voyage without the need for repair. Advances in ion propulsion like the VASMIR engine could greatly decrease the time it takes to reach deep space. Faster transport times means less time for things to go wrong and less exposure to the hazards of space. NASA has big plans for the future and is looking for the next generation of astronauts.

Advice for Aspiring Astronauts

Serena Aunon left the following piece of advice for aspiring astronauts: “Do what you love. This piece of advice sounds really simple, but I absolutely believe it. Do what you love. Because a lot of students come up to me and say, " Should I do this project or that project? Should I go into that field? What do you think NASA would like better?"  It doesn't matter what NASA wants or likes. It's what you want or like to do, because this is your life's work. This should be your passion. And if you pick a field or career where you're not happy doing what you're doing, it's not worth it. It's not worth it to you. It's not worth it to NASA. So, do what you love. I went into engineering, and then, again, abruptly turned into medicine. Didn't know how I was going to work for NASA at that point, but I knew things would work out eventually. I loved being an engineer. I love being a physician. And eventually, when I got to NASA, it all worked out for the best. So, absolutely, hands down, do what you love first and foremost.” – Serena Aunon

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