NASA sets high bar for wannabe astronauts

NASA, which today sent its new rover Curiosity to Mars to explore whether the planet could have ever sustained life, is now accepting applications for a new corps of astronauts — and the qualifications are tough.

Not all undergraduate college degrees are accepted, program quality matters, masters and doctorates are beneficial, and post-college experience is required. Those who have trouble with math and science need not apply.

The last time NASA chose a new group of astronaut candidates was in 2009, when nine applicants from 3,564 were selected. (See educational biographies of the nine below.)

Astronauts Nicole Stott, left, Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt, pilot Eric Boe, Stephen Bowen and commander Steve Lindsey walk to the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this year for the final flight of space shuttle Discovery. (Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)

NASA is accepting applications through Jan. 27. Interviews and evaluations of the initial group chosen will then begin, and NASA expects to announce its final selections in 2013. Several years of training will begin in August of that year for the astronauts , who may be involved in work on the International Space Station and future deep space exploration.

What exactly does it take to become an astronaut? What should a wannabe astronaut study?

Here are the qualifications, from the NASA Web site:

Bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. Quality of academic preparation is important.

Notes on Academic Requirements:
Applicants for the Astronaut Candidate Program must meet the basic education requirements for NASA engineering and scientific positions, specifically: successful completion of standard professional curriculum in an accredited college or university leading to at least a bachelor's degree with major study in an appropriate field of engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.

The following degree fields are not considered qualifying:
— Degrees in Technology (Engineering Technology, Aviation Technology, Medical Technology, etc.)
— Degrees in Psychology (except for Clinical Psychology, Physiological Psychology, or Experimental Psychology, which are qualifying)
— Degrees in Nursing
— Degrees in Exercise Physiology or similar fields
— Degrees in Social Sciences (Geography, Anthropology, Archaeology, etc.)
— Degrees in Aviation, Aviation Management, or similar fields

2. Degree followed by at least 3 years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for experience as follows: master's degree = 1 year of experience, doctoral degree = 3 years of experience. Teaching experience, including experience at the K - 12 levels, is considered to be qualifying experience for the Astronaut Candidate position; therefore, educators are encouraged to apply.

3. Ability to pass the NASA long-duration space flight physical, which includes the following specific requirements:

Distant and near visual acuity: Must be correctable to 20/20, each eye

The refractive surgical procedures of the eye, PRK and LASIK, are allowed, providing at least 1 year has passed since the date of the procedure with no permanent adverse after effects. For those applicants under final consideration, an operative report on the surgical procedure will be requested.

Blood pressure not to exceed 140/90 measured in a sitting position

Standing height between 62 and 75 inches.

Here are educational details of the astronaut candidates chosen in 2009, from NASA’s Web site.

SERENA M. AUÑÓN (M.D.): Graduated from Poudre High School, Fort Collins, Colorado, 1993. Received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., in 1997 and a doctorate of medicine degree from The University of Texas - Health Science Center at Houston in 2001. Completed a 3-year residency in internal medicine at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, Texas, 2004 and then completed an additional year as chief resident in the Internal Medicine Department, 2005. She also completed an aerospace medicine residency at UTMB as well as a master of public health degree in 2007. She is board certified in Internal and Aerospace Medicine.

Jeanette J. Epps (Ph.D.): Graduated from Thomas J. Corcoran High School, Syracuse, New York in 1988; received a bachelor of science degree in Physics from LeMoyne College in 1992 and master of science degree and doctorate of philosophy degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland in 1994 and 2000, respectively.

Jack D. Fischer (Lieutenant Colonel, USAF): 1992, Centaurus High School, Lafayette, CO; 1996, B.S., Astronautical Engineering, U.S. Air Force Academy, CO; 1998, M.S., Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

Michael S. Hopkins (Lieutenant Colonel, USAF): School of the Osage High School, Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, 1987; B.S. aerospace engineering, University of Illinois, 1991; M.S. aerospace engineering, Stanford University, 1992.

Kjell N. Lindgren (M.D.): Completed his freshman year at Lakenheath High School in the U.K. Participated in Virginia’s Governor’s School at William and Mary College during the summer of 1990. Graduated from James W. Robinson Secondary School Fairfax, Virginia in 1991. Received a bachelor of science degree in biology (minor in Mandarin Chinese) from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1995; a master of science degree in cardiovascular physiology from Colorado State University (CSU) in 1996; and a doctorate of medicine from the University of Colorado in 2002. Completed a 3-year residency in emergency medicine, including a chief resident year at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2005. Completed a National Library of Medicine post-doctoral fellowship and master of health informatics at the University of Minnesota in 2006. Completed a 2-year residency in aerospace medicine (2008) and a master of public health (2007) at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. Dr. Lindgren is board certified in emergency medicine and aerospace medicine.

Kathleen (Kate) Rubins (Ph.D.): Graduated from Vintage High School in 1996, received a Bachelor of Science degree in Molecular Biology from the University of California, San Diego, in 1999 and a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology in 2005 from Stanford University Medical School Biochemistry Department and Microbiology and Immunology Department.

Scott D. Tingle ( Commander, USN): Graduated from Blue Hills Regional Vocational Technical High School, Canton, Massachusetts, in 1983. Earned a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Southeastern Massachusetts University in 1987. Earned a master of science in mechanical engineering with a specialty in fluid mechanics and propulsion from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, in 1988.

Mark T. Vande Hei (Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. ARMY): Saint Joseph’s High School, Metuchen, New Jersey; Benilde-Saint Margaret’s High School, Saint Louis Park, Minnesota, 1985; B.S., Physics, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1989; M.S., Applied Physics, Stanford University, 1999

G. Reid Wiseman (Lieutenant Commander, USN): Graduated from Dulaney High School, Timonium, Maryland, 1993; B.S., Computer and Systems Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, 1997; M.S., Systems Engineering, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, 2006.


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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