The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Lori Garver, former NASA administrator and would-be “AstroMom” from 2002, discusses her ultimately unsuccessful commercial spaceflight bid at the SpaceVision 2014 conference in Durham, North Carolina, on November 1. (credit: J. Foust)

Almost astronauts

Bookmark and Share

One of the world’s most exclusive clubs is that of space travelers. Since the beginning of the Space Age, fewer than 550 people have flown in space worldwide. Becoming a professional astronaut is one of the most difficult careers to achieve. According to the rosters published by NASA, the agency today has 43 “active” astronauts available for flight assignments, plus eight astronaut candidates selected in 2013. That makes the astronaut corps roughly the size of a single National Football League team roster—and there are 32 such teams in the league.

“As a kid, I always thought I would go and become an astronaut,” recalled Proctor. “It would be an easy process.”

Those long odds have not deterred many from trying to become an astronaut. In that most recent NASA selection, more than 6,100 people applied, with only eight making the cut. Many, of course, are weeded out in the early stages, but some survive those cuts and make it into the final stages of the selection. What happens when you get this close to achieving what, for many, is a lifelong dream—and fall short?

“You start thinking, ‘What did I do wrong?’”

Sian Proctor knows what that’s like. “I wanted to be an astronaut since, basically, I was born,” she said in a panel session at the SpaceVision 2014 conference in Durham, North Carolina, on November 1. Born on Guam, where her father was working for NASA, she was immersed in spaceflight from an early age. “As a kid, I always thought I would go and become an astronaut. It would be an easy process.”

Her initial plans to pursue that career by first becoming an Air Force pilot were derailed at age 16 when she got glasses. “Pretty much at that time, my idea of becoming an astronaut ended,” she said.

Afterwards, she said she followed her personal passions, which included travelling, photography, and food. She obtained a Ph.D. in science education from Arizona State University, where she also took up ice hockey, becoming captain of the women’s team there, even though she never played the sport before.

“It's really important to learn what your limitations are, and to push yourself and to understand your fears and how to overcome them,” she told the largely student audience. “And the only way to do that is by being adventurous and trying things you never thought you would try before.”

In 2008, Proctor said she was “living my lifestyle,” following her passions, when NASA announced a new astronaut selection round. “A friend sends me an email that says, ‘Hey, you should try out for the astronaut corps. You’d be awesome.’” She realized she met the requirements for being an astronaut, and submitted an application.

She made the initial cut of 110 semi-finalists for that class, and went to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) for several days of interviews and medical tests. About two month later, she heard back from NASA: she was one of 47 finalists. She went back to JSC for a week’s worth of more thorough medical tests, interviews, and simulations.

“And then you go home and you wait,” she said. “You wait for the phone call: the yes/no phone call.”

That call came months later, when Proctor was at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center doing research. “They had told me that if a woman calls you, you’ve got it, since Peggy Whitson was head of the astronaut selection committee at the time,” she recalled.

A woman did call Proctor, but it was Sunita Williams, not Whitson, on the line, telling Proctor that she wasn’t selected. “You have this interesting reaction when you get this close,” she said. “It's very emotional. You start thinking, ‘What did I do wrong? Why didn’t they select me? What could I have done better?’”

It’s not uncommon for potential astronauts to miss the cut the first time, and try again—sometimes several times—before finally being selected. Those people often use the opportunity to fill gaps in their experience, take jobs at NASA, or otherwise refine themselves to have a better shot in future attempts.

“You’ve got a terrible numbers game working against you,” said Steeves. “You kind of have to do things to try and stand out.”

Proctor, though, took a different approach. “I could make changes in my life to try and fit what it was I thought NASA was looking for,” she said, such as getting a degree in space studies. “Then I stopped myself. The lifestyle I was living got me to be in the top one percent, so I must have been doing something right.”

“So, instead of getting another degree, I went on a reality TV show,” she said. That show, “The Colony,” featuring a group of people living in a simulated post-apocalyptic society. Her friends warned her that going on a reality TV show might ruin her chances of becoming a NASA astronaut.

“I didn’t care though,” she said. “This is where my passion was. This is what I wanted to do. It was a unique opportunity for me.” She leveraged that TV show experience into participation in a Mars simulation, called HI-SEAS, living for four months on a Hawaiian mountaintop. If she had any regrets for not becoming an astronaut, she didn’t express them at the conference.

“Go make opportunities for yourself and live life along the way,” she advised the students at the talk.

“A terrible numbers game”

As difficult as it is to become a NASA astronaut, it can be even more challenging to join the astronaut corps of other nations, where new astronauts are selected less frequently and typically have even fewer opportunities to fly. That's the case in Canada, where the most recent round in 2008 eventually selected two astronauts out of an initial pool of more than 10,000 applications.

“You’ve got a terrible numbers game working against you,” said Geoff Steeves, a physicist at the University of Victoria, who was one of those applicants. “You kind of have to do things to try and stand out.”

Steeves sought to stand out not just with his education but other experience, from scuba diving to piloting. That experience outside the laboratory, he said, helped demonstrate his ability to solve problems on short timescales, an essential skill for an astronaut.

In 2009, he recalls, “things got interesting,” where, after making the initial cuts, he and other applicants went through a series of aptitude tests, ranging from working on a simulator of the Canadarm robotic arm to a two-day damage control training course that dealt with firefighting and flood control in confined spaces. He became one of 16 finalists in that round.

Steeves, though, didn’t make the final cut, as the Canadian Space Agency picked Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, who are today the only two active Canadian astronauts. “It took time to come to terms with not being selected, especially when you get so close,” he said.

“Over time,” he said, “I realized that I had such an amazing experience, it changed me. I wanted to play that change forward.”

Many of the other finalists, he said, had attended the International Space University (ISU). He attended ISU as a student in 2010 and has since joined the faculty. He said he’s working with an artist on a series of interactive comics about students who want to become astronauts.

“I’ll take my chances against Lance Bass”

The coming age of commercial human spaceflight will change the calculus of becoming a space traveler. No longer will people need the mythical “Right Stuff” and beat long odds to become an astronaut: if you have enough money in your checkbook, and are reasonable healthy, you’ll be able to experience at least a suborbital spaceflight.

“It you’re average, you’ve got to go commercial,” Garver said.

However, even would-be commercial astronauts can miss out on their spaceflight aspirations. In 2002, Lori Garver, at the time a former NASA official working for DFI International, made headlines with her “AstroMom” effort, trying to raise money to fly to the International Space Station as a spaceflight participant—a space tourist—on a Rusian Soyuz vehicle.

In 2002, space tourism was still in its early days: Dennis Tito was the first private individual to fly to the ISS in 2001. Seat prices were also lower than today: $20 million or less, versus more than $50 million that Space Adventures charges for a Soyuz seat, on the rare occasions when one is available.

That lower price, though, was still far beyond Garver’s means, and she worked to find corporate sponsors to pay for the flight, ranging from Sudafed to Major League Baseball to Disney. “It’s worth a million dollars when you land—that was the negotiated amount—to say, ‘Lori Garver, you’ve just been to space, what are you going to do now? I’m going to Disneyland,’” she recalled.

“The model proved a little challenging,” she said of the sponsorship approach, “because I needed to get sponsors at a time when I also need to commit to the Russians that I could do it.” The Russians initially were accommodating, she said, since there was no one else interested in that seat.

Until, that is, Lance Bass came along. The singer, at the apex of his fame as a member of the boy band *NSYNC, had suddenly expressed an interest in flying into space, on the same flight that Garver was seeking to take.

“Lance shows up in Russia, not really prepared for what was happening,” Garver recalled. “He was a great guy, and we had a ball.”

Both went into training in parallel for a time, passing the physical challenges while facing greater fiscal ones. “Lance ended up being able to convince the Russians he could raise more,” she said. “Of course, he never raised the money either.” Neither Garver nor Bass flew on that Soyuz flight.

“My business model didn’t work in a competitive environment,” she concluded. “I wasn’t prepared to raise the full $20 million and, it turned out, he wasn’t either.”

However, she saw some benefits from the effort, such as raising the public profile of the International Space Station and commercial space, including that “everyday people,” as opposed to professional astronauts, could go to space.

“Commercial personal spaceflight is something I feel strongly about for a lot of reasons, not just because I would have loved to have gone,” she said. “I feel the critical nature of it is to allow more people to experience spaceflight themselves.”

“It you’re average, you’ve got to go commercial,” she said later. Referring to the extensive medical tests and training that Proctor and Steeves experienced, she said, “I’ll take my chances against Lance Bass over what you guys went through any day.”