by Jeff Cunningham
The 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class (in NASA parlance, and among the astronaut corps, you’re referred to as a “candidate” until your moment comes for your first flight, and it’s only after that that you may claim the honor of the title of “astronaut”) may well be the most diverse such group ever assembled. Among their numbers are:
- A nuclear physicist who was also one of the first women to serve aboard an American submarine
- A Lt. Colonel from the United States Air Force who has served in the Persian Gulf and the Korean border, is an experienced test pilot, and has a degree from MIT
- A marine biologist who has travelled the world to study microscopic life from Hawaii to Antartica
- An MIT professor, private pilot with search-and-rescue experience, and software developer
- A gorram Navy SEAL who earned the Silver Star and Bronze Star while serving as sniper, combat medic and “point man,” then came home to earn a degree in mathematics and was a resident physician in emergency medicine.
The one that caught everyone’s attention, though, and has everyone talking, is one Robb Kulin. Why, you ask? Because when he got “the call,” he was working as the senior flight engineer for a little company called SpaceX.
This being the internet, it of course didn’t take long for wild accusations and conspiracy theories to pollute comment sections of online articles and social media feeds. Never mind the fact that he also served a tour as a researcher drilling ice in Antarctica, is also a private pilot from Alaska, and has a PhD in Engineering from UCSD– “NASA is colluding,” one can almost hear, “NASA is in bed with corporations,” etc.
The truth is, when NASA accepts civilian applicants into the astronaut corps, it’s not uncommon for them to be experienced, talented engineers who have worked for one of the “prime contractors” that helped build the very ships that they fly– and it hasn’t been “uncommon” for decades, now. It’s all part of the changing face of the American astronaut, an evolution so slow and gradual that the public never really notices it until you have someone like Kulin make the cut.
When NASA and the space program first started, astronauts were all, exclusively, military test pilots to a man (literally, on that last point). To be specific, this first group to blaze the trail for the rest of us were required to:
- Be graduates of a military test pilot school– in and of itself a highly dangerous profession that has taken lives in peacetime
- Be no more than 5′ 11″ tall, in order to safely fit inside a cramped and– by today’s standards– crude spaceship (the saying among the Mercury astronauts was that the capsule was not so much “flown” or “piloted” as it was worn)
- Have a Bachelor’s degree
- Be qualified to fly jets and have at least 1,500 hours of flight time (which is how piloting experience is measured, as opposed to how long you’ve had the job itself)
- Be no more than 40 years old– easier said than done, as achieving the above would take most of one’s career.
And that was just to apply. Meeting those criteria was just the beginning, before a gauntlet of medical, psychological, and even written tests that selected only six brave pioneers out of hundreds. In short, even the astronauts of today, for the most part, would not have made the cut.
It wasn’t long before the qualities that NASA sought in those that they sought to blaze a trail in the heavens were adjusted, and were further refined every year or two when they took on a new class. First, the height restriction was relaxed by an inch and the flight-time requirement was lowered, while the education requirement was clarified and narrowed down to either engineering or one of the sciences. Of greatest historical import, though, that most aren’t aware of, is that this was when applications were opened up to civilian men– and women, as well, though this wouldn’t actually come for another two decades or so. It was this group that included one Neil Armstrong.
It was in 1978 that the first class of astronauts was selected to fly the space shuttle, in what was the largest class ever accepted up until then. Among the 35 candidates were the first American woman in space (Sally Ride), the first African-American, and the first Asian-American to fly into space. This also began a special era in the history of the corps, when applicants could select one of three specializations and tracks:
- Pilots from either civilian or military backgrounds, who continued to have strict requirements for flight hours and vision. Shuttle mission commanders came from this track.
- Mission Specialists, the more common track, whose role was much more technical and scientific in nature. It was the mission specialists who operated the robotic arm, conducted spacewalks, and conducted many experiments.
- Payload Specialists were a special class of “one-off” astronauts who were occasionally necessitated by the mission. For example, the space shuttle might be tasked with carrying a Japanese scientific payload into space. In such an event, with very special payloads, rather than train the whole crew, NASA occasionally reserved a seat for a Japanese scientist or technician more familiar with the payload in question to join the crew.
Since the shuttle program ended in 2011, the job requirements haven’t changed too much, aside from eliminating the maximum age and relaxing height requirements a little more as the spacecraft have grown (they even have an agreement in place with other nations’ space programs, so strictly speaking, you don’t have to be American, either). To this day, it really just comes down to either 1,000 hours behind the stick in a jet, or a Bachelor’s degree in just about any science (the record for most cumulative hours logged in spacewalks used to be held by a veterinarian) with several years of experience (though let’s be real here, your chances are better with a postgraduate degree).
In discussing this, it’s only natural to ask the question of what the rest of us could learn– if not to increase our chances, then at least to feel more fulfilled. I know it’s certainly on my mind, as I prepare to return to school in hopes of getting a second chance in the professional world. There are a few common threads that have held throughout the years that can still be seen today in the resumes of these new recruits, that bear consideration to that end:
You Can Never Have Enough
You’ve no doubt noticed that, in order to be accepted into the few and the proud, you have to already be awesome and successful at something else. Astronauts have a history of climbing to the top of their field and career ladder– and then immediately looking for something else to master.
That’s why most of the bios of this new group sound like the sort of ridiculously overqualified backstory one would expect from a comic book, taking the form of “(Something awesome that most people wait their whole lives to do) AND (something else awesome) AND….” Seriously– Navy SEAL and sniper and point man and degree in advanced mathematics and respected physician and now astronaut? When’s the last time you heard of a pedigree like that outside of a Call of Duty game?
The point is, “lesson one” is that astronauts never settle for ordinary, for “good enough.” The Good Book says that the days of every man are numbered, but not known unto us (just ask Shepherd Book). Rather than succumb to our natural tendency to content ourselves with attaining stability in our careers, with reaching a point where the finer points of our lives can continue on their own with no further effort and input on our own part, why not continue on? It’s said that a young man reported to his grandfather that, thanks to his contributions, his school football team had won the game. “Great! You’ve had your moment,” said the old man, “now go out and have another.” This is the difference between carpe diem and carpe astra.
Let No Power in the ‘Verse Stop You
The other thing that men and women of the astronaut corps all have in common is an unmistakable, immutable thirst for adventure. Remember Robb Kulin, the SpaceX engineer, who grew up in Alaska? In a recent interview, he talked about how, if anything, growing up that far-removed from NASA helped him get there:
“Growing up in Alaska is absolutely incredible. I hate to say this being in Texas right now, but there’s honestly no other place in the world I’d rather live more than Alaska. Some of the great parts about it are the adventurous people that you find yourself surrounded by. One of my good friends growing up, she was the youngest person for quite a while to climb Denali, which kind of gives you a flavor for the spirit of people that you’re with. A lot of people spend time flying their own planes around the state, going on adventurous trips. And I think that whole spirit for adventure and exploration is kind of what got me interested in space in the first place.”
At risk of sounding twice as old as I actually am, our society no longer has any concept of what true adventure and bravery is– that’s not a statement on politics, religion, or the military. I mean when you look at social media, tweets, television, or just listen in to a conversation your peers are having, it becomes absolutely clear that our culture has thoroughly confused being “provocative” with bravery.
The reason why that definition is fundamentally inaccurate is because “pushing the boundaries” of perceived social customs, morals, traditions and so forth does not actually place you at risk. The only “hazard,” if one can even call it that, is that you’ll offend someone with your newly invented crudeness or irreverence– and there’s even less risk to you in a world where such “rebellion” is the norm.
Risking (or, let’s be honest, intentionally) offending others isn’t courage. Risking the loss of comforts, of things you hold dear, and risking failure is. Place yourself in Kulin’s shoes for a moment, living in some comparatively remote place (or more so than wherever you are at the moment), trying to figure out what to do with your life, what to study in college and where. School counselors across the country are finding that people everywhere at this juncture are suffering profound “analysis paralysis,” and continue to do so several years after graduation or into their first job(s). We all vacillate back and forth between this major and that, we hesitate to apply to that job in another state, because we’re afraid of “messing up” and choosing a wrong path in our lives that will lead to a dead end or some form of buyer’s remorse.
The truth is, there’s really no “wrong path,” it’s all about how to roll with the punches that come your way. It’s what Robert Frost was actually talking about in The Road Not Taken, a poem that’s well-known but widely misunderstood, because everyone only quotes the last three lines. Here’s the whole thing (it’s brief, I promise):
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,And sorry I could not travel bothAnd be one traveler, long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I couldTo where it bent in the undergrowth;Then took the other, as just as fair,And having perhaps the better claim,Because it was grassy and wanted wear;Though as for that the passing thereHad worn them really about the same,And both that morning equally layIn leaves no step had trodden black.Oh, I kept the first for another day!Yet knowing how way leads on to way,I doubted if I should ever come back.I shall be telling this with a sighSomewhere ages and ages hence:Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.
When you read the whole thing from start to finish, it’s not about being “daring”, that same misconception I mentioned earlier. He’s actually mocking himself for being too hesitant and scared to just choose a path for his afternoon walk, for fear he’ll regret it afterwards for some reason. Frost’s message is that it really doesn’t matter either way, you can lead a happy and fulfilling life either way, so long as you just choose your path without delay, without worrying whether it’ll be the “wrong one.”
For Robb Kulin’s part, his chosen path didn’t lead towards space, at first– what actually got him interested was studying the Columbia disaster during his undergrad studies, something you’d think would have turned most people off, but which only piqued his interest more.
He also was among the naysayers in SpaceX’s early days, back when it seemed they couldn’t launch a rocket that didn’t explode on the pad if their lives depended on it:
“My first introduction to SpaceX, I kind of rolled my eyes because I’d seen their first couple of failures and I wasn’t imaginative enough to understand what they were really trying to achieve. When I really got turned onto SpaceX was when I went out for a Shuttle launch and happened to go with a friend of a friend that worked there. And he got us a tour of SLC-40 [one of SpaceX’s launch sites at Cape Canaveral, Florida], and they’d just done a raising of a model Falcon 9; they called it Capricorn 1. And they were pretty amped on that.
It was these guys trying to do some pretty ambitious, but also low-cost, engineering just to get this company going. And the energy they had was incredible, as well as the responsibility and the ability for an engineer to get their hands dirty. I quickly turned around from thinking they were a little silly to being really impressed and deciding I wanted to apply and try to work there as soon as I finished grad school.”
The road he wound up taking looked for all intents and purposes like the “wrong” one, one that would end with him out of a job and starting over again within a year or two. That’s what adventure looks like. He was attracted by the romantic nature of the seemingly impossible thing they were trying to achieve. After all, you may recall a certain cancelled television show that taught us all that it’s the impossibility of a great deed that makes it great, and has the potential to make us mighty.
It certainly served Kulin well. It’s what enabled him to not only work for one of the most well-respected companies in the world, but empowered him to rise within the organization to play a pivotal role in the development of many components of the Falcon 9’s first stage (the half of the rocket that flies back and lands) as senior manager for flight reliability at SpaceX, leading the Launch Chief Engineering group. He’d made himself so invaluable, the company’s actually sad to see him go!
And once again, when he’d reached the top of the ladder, he looked for another one with the astronaut corps.
“How You Get There’s the Worthier Part”
Here’s wishing all of you luck in doing the impossible. Never cast one of your aspirations aside when it seems to have become impossible at the point where you are in your life. Doing the “impossible” truly does make one mighty– recall that Kennedy said “we seek to do these things… not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
That’s why, even at this late stage of the game, we’re still not quitting in our campaign to write letters to Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX to name a manned Dragon spacecraft Serenity. Something like that is just too awesome to give up on.