Monday, July 3, 2017

How to become an astronaut

Lots of kids want to be astronauts when they grow up. My generation got screwed in that regard. We went from Kitty Hawk to Mare Tranquillitatis in 66 years. Then, after a few more trips, we stopped going to the Moon and just went into low earth orbit over and over again. (This made no sense: as Heinlein, I think, said, once you reach low earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system in terms of energy expenditure.)

Well, things might be changing: the President just revived the National Space Council and the House Armed Service Committee just voted to split the Air Force in half, with one half becoming the U.S. Space Corps. This reminded me of a conversation I had with my son several weeks ago when he asked me how to become an astronaut. I told him I have no idea what actual private or government organizations that are pursuing space exploration will look for, but I know what I'd look for in a potential astronaut. Specifically, I told him two things I'd look for. They're not completely separate; in many cases if you get one you'd also get the other.

First, I'd want someone with experience in living and working long-term in a small, remote community. This could be an isolated military base or just an isolated science station or village. By "isolated" I don't mean that the person spent time alone. What I'd look for is someone who spent an extended period of time in a small community which did not have any other people nearby. Part of the goal here is to show that you could live with a small number of other people (thus being by yourself in an isolated area wouldn't help) without any nearby support for an extended period of time. Obviously, if we set up a station on the Moon or Mars or an asteroid or wherever, any people there would be cut off from the rest of human civilization in significant ways, and the closest case to that now is people living in small remote communities.

Second, I'd want someone with experience living long-term in confined quarters. A submariner would be perfect. Submarines are designed to minimize the open space inside, which means that claustrophobes need not apply. Spaceships transporting people to wherever would similarly require a minimal amount of open space inside. And if we establish manned stations somewhere, they probably would have to be designed along similar lines. It would be nice to have an extensive station with plenty of open space, but it might not be feasible. And note that someone with experience living in confined quarters with others will very probably also have experience living in an isolated community. The crew of a submarine has experience with both automatically. Someone living in a village or station with an extreme climate (like Antarctic research stations, or villages in Qaasuitsup Greenland) would also spend a great deal of time indoors, which would be moderately similar.

Again, this is what I'd look for in a potential astronaut, not what the actual people actually recruiting actual astronauts will be looking for. It makes sense though.

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