The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by Madeleine Brand
Environment & Science

Dream jobs: What's it like to be an astronaut?

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket early May 22, 2012 as it heads for space carrying the company's Dragon spacecraft from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Dragon capsule is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station in a few days.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket early May 22, 2012 as it heads for space carrying the company's Dragon spacecraft from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Dragon capsule is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station in a few days.

Listen to story

Download this story 3MB

Now it’s time for the last story in our Dream Jobs series — those jobs you said you wanted to do when you were a kid. Today we’re looking at that ultimate dream job: astronaut.

SpaceX recently made history after its Dragon capsule splashed down safely in the ocean. It was the first commercial vehicle ever to dock at the International Space Station. It’s sparked all sorts of discussion about the future of space travel. What does it mean for people who want to be astronauts? Jed Kim went to find out.

Brian Shiro wants to be an astronaut. It’s a pursuit that’s shaped his entire life.

"Every step I take, and every decision I make, it’s always one factor: how’s this gonna affect the astronaut chances down the road. And I think most astronaut hopefuls can relate to that.”

Right now, the 33-year-old geophysicist is taking another step towards his goal. He’s experiencing weightlessness for the first time.

He’s on a parabolic flight. It's considered parabolic because the plane goes up and down in a path like a giant sine wave. During the down parts, he’s in freefall, and he’ll get about 25 seconds of weightlessness. Before he took off, I asked him how he was feeling about the trip.

“Oh I’m really excited. I’ve been looking forward to this for many, many years," he said.

During his first drop, he hovers cross-legged, inches above the floor, holding onto straps to keep from flying out of control. He looks more serious than excited. But then, you need to be serious if you want to become an astronaut. Brian works in the sciences, he runs marathons, he scuba dives, he’s even getting his pilot’s license.

He’s applied to be a NASA astronaut twice. Last time, in 2009, he made it to the top 400 candidates. He submitted again last year when the call for more astronauts went out.

So what are his chances? Actually what are anyone’s chances these days now that NASA’s ended its shuttle program?

Probably no one knows better than Duane Ross, the Manager for Astronaut Candidate Selection and Training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Ross is in charge of finding the next group of astronauts. He says that the loss of the shuttle program hasn’t had a big impact on these jobs.

“It had some effect but not completely, because we are still staffing the International Space Station," he said.

American astronauts are hitching rides to the station on Russian Soyuz rockets. So the good news for Brian is that astronauts are still needed. The bad news is that NASA’s gotten a lot of applications: 6,000 people are vying for 15 spots.

“6,000 is the second-largest number we’ve ever had. That’s what you call competitive,” said Ross.

Less than a quarter of a percent of applicants will make it. Fortunately for them, NASA’s no longer the only game in town. Last month, the commercial company SpaceX made history when it successfully launched a vehicle that docked with the International Space Station.

“There’s only four entities in the world that have ever successfully returned a spacecraft from orbit: United States, Russia, China and SpaceX," says SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Brost Grantham. She says the mission’s success has justified the excitement in the promise of commercial spaceflight.

“Our hope right now is that we’ll continue to work with NASA, and we could see the first manned test flight in three years,” she said.

That’s good news to Brian, who sees commercial space travel as an opportunity for astronaut hopefuls like himself. Because the industry is still so new, most companies haven’t figured out how they’ll recruit yet. Brian wants to make it easy for them.

“There’s a real market here for a group of people, a service, if you will, to come together and get trained and experienced and competent in the space vehicles that will be operating in these environments," Brian says.

Two years ago, he started Astronauts 4 Hire, an organization that recruits and trains people to have the skills and experiences astronaut candidates need — experiences like functioning in high altitude or under severe G-force strain.

Astronauts 4 Hire already has around 100 members. More impressively, it’s already gotten work. This zero-gravity flight that Brian’s taking isn’t just training. It’s research for a company that hired them to test its medical monitoring devices. He says the contract wasn’t huge, but it helps defray some of the costs of training.

“Being an astronaut is an expensive thing to do, especially if you count up all the degrees, and I’m working on my pilot's license right now, for example. That’s not cheap. If I had to just roughly guess, if I exclude school, it’s probably for me personally, it’s probably on the order of $15-20,000.”

That’s a lot of money and energy to put towards a career that doesn’t exist yet. Still, there’s reason to hope it will. That reason is a man named Keith Colmer, a test pilot for Virgin Galactic.

Keith is the second and latest test pilot hired by Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company that promises an out-of-the-world experience for $200,000. Keith will fly passengers beyond the atmosphere around 100 kilometers above Earth.

"[It will] give people the experience of zero G, get them to see the curvature of the Earth, and then the thin blue line of the atmosphere from up on high, and I think it’ll be life changing for sure.”

He thinks it’ll be life changing. He doesn’t know yet, because the technology isn’t to the point where he can try it.

“I think that’s the big question that everybody would love to have the answer to, including us. You know, we’re not schedule-driven, so it’s not like we have some magic date when we’re gonna finish. Everybody would like to see us go sooner rather than later, but we’ll get there when the technology’s ready.”

He says they’re hoping to be ready for commercial flights by the end of next year. Keith knows he’s headed up there eventually, and at this point in history that makes him something almost completely unique: a commercial staff astronaut.

That’s a title Brian would love to have someday. In the meantime, he’s loosening up and having a good time in zero gravity. At the moment, he’s tucked into a ball, turning somersaults in mid air, a big smile on his face. It’s days like this that make the pursuit worthwhile, even if it never ends up happening.

“If it never happens, that’s ok. At least I had a lot of fun along the way. Scuba diving and flying planes and doing zero-G flights like this, those things are all, in addition to being challenging and rewarding, they’re a lot of fun and that make for an interesting life. So, the journey’s what’s most important. You take life as it comes, and you don’t hinge everything on that one dream,” he said.

It’s a big dream, and you’ve got to enjoy the small steps on the way towards your big leap.

Videos courtesy of Vital Space