2019 has been both epic – and an epic fail – for female astronauts.
There was the exciting news that NASA's Anne McClain and Christina Koch were going to make history on the first all-female spacewalk in March 2019. Then there was the very embarrassing backtrack when, unfortunately, the first-female spacewalk wouldn't – couldn't – happen, because NASA hadn't thought of designing spacesuits to fit its female astronauts. Cue intense anger and frustration from all womankind.
2019 marks the 50-year celebration of the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing, so it's apt that in May 2019, NASA announced a new programme called Artemis, which plans to send the first woman to the moon by 2024 – with the aim of inspiring legions more girls to become astronauts and follow suit. A big step in the right direction – although we wish it had happened sooner!
Individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, from pilots to physicists, can become astronauts, and lots of people want to: in 2016, 18,300 people applied when NASA announced they were hiring. Only 12 men and women made it. Here's what you need to know to get to outer space…
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STEM, STEM, STEM
The cards have been somewhat stacked against female astronauts, at least in the United States, since space flight began, but nowadays men and women are judged on the same criteria when applying to be astronauts.
In the late 1950s, astronauts were initially selected from a pool of military test pilots with engineering backgrounds, experience flying various types of aircraft and resolving difficult in-flight issues, which excluded women from the outset since they weren’t allowed to be military pilots at that time. Early NASA astronauts also had to be under 5’11” – to fit in the spacecraft.
While a background in aviation and extensive experience as a pilot can still propel you into outer space, that’s not the only way to get a foot in the door at the European Space Agency (ESA) or NASA. People with a background in science and an undergraduate degree in a subject like mathematics, engineering, biology, physics and chemistry can all apply (so perhaps black hole hero, Dr. Katie Bouman, will pursue outer space next?).
In addition to a STEM subject degree, astronauts typically have three-plus years of professional experience after qualifying (or 1,000 hours of flying experience): for example, Anne McClain has a BA in mechanical engineering from West Point, two master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and international relations, played in the US women’s national rugby union team and Women’s Premiership and had an active military career as a helicopter pilot, all before qualifying as an astronaut.
UK astronaut Helen Sharman earned her PhD in chemistry, and later worked on chocolate formulas for Mars and as a research and development technologist at GEC before winning a lottery to be the first female astronaut in the UK.
It’s also not unusual for astronauts to have medical degrees: see the history-making Mae Jemison.
Let’s get physical
OK: astronauts are hardworking, super-bright and generally have quite spectacular CVs – before they’ve even got space travel on there. But mental agility is only part of it. To become an astronaut, you need to be a citizen of whichever country you’re applying in (yes, people have become citizens of countries to make this dream come true), you typically need to be in your mid-twenties to mid-forties and you need to have 20/20 vision (you can use glasses).
Astronauts also have to undergo grueling physical examinations and various medical tests which check everything from blood pressure levels to cardiovascular fitness. However, you don’t need to be the fittest person you know – according to the ESA, “too many overdeveloped muscles may be a disadvantage for astronauts in weightlessness.”
This might just be the trickiest obstacle to becoming an astronaut: you can’t just apply for the job. Instead, you need to wait for a hiring cycle, which doesn’t come around that regularly (the last European selection process for astronauts via the ESA happened a decade ago); NASA hired their newest astronaut recruits in 2017.
Considering Mars is next on the agenda in the 2030s, there’s no time like the present to start training to be the next astronaut. Bon voyage.