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What Does It Take to Be an Astronaut?

That was the most asked question during an event this morning at the National Air and Space Museum featuring the crew of STS-132, the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station. A student asks a question of the STS-132 crew. —Image by Eric Long/NASM Well, the final “scheduled” flight, anyway....

That was the most asked question during an event this morning at the National Air and Space Museum featuring the crew of STS-132, the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station.


A student asks a question of the STS-132 crew.

—Image by Eric Long/NASM

Well, the final “scheduled” flight, anyway. There’s a proposal out to add one more launch before the U.S. shuttle fleet gets retired, and if that mission flies, Atlantis will get back to work.

But I digress.

The STS-132 crew was on hand today for the official return to the museum of “the world’s most well-traveled Nobel Prize”—an official replica of the 2006 Nobel Prize for physics that flew to space during the shuttle mission in May.

Nobel laureates John Mather and George Smoot shared the prize for their work on the cosmic microwave background radiation—”the residual heat from the big bang itself,” as Mather described the CMB to the crowd at this morning’s event.

Measuring properties of the CMB had been Mather’s thesis project at Berkeley in 1970, he noted. But trying to collect data on this extremely faint radiation from under the blanket of Earth’s atmosphere posed a few challenges, and “my thesis didn’t work out so well.”

Later, as a postdoc at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, Mather applied to design a NASA satellite to investigate the CMB, and his proposal led to the development and launch of the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE.


Nobel-winning splotches: COBE’s map of the CMB.

—Image courtesy NASA

Data from this satellite “confirmed that the big bang theory really is a good story” when it comes to explaining the origins of the universe, Mather said—findings that were later backed up by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.

(See “Proof of Big Bang Seen by Space Probe, Scientists Say.”)

So it’s pretty apropos that Mather donated a replica of his prize to the Air and Space Museum in 2007.

Earlier this year [apparently in the midst of Snowpocalypse here in D.C.] STS-132 robotics officer Piers Sellers wrote to the museum to see about getting the prize up to where COBE did its heavy lifting.

According to museum curator Margaret Weitekamp, the astronaut’s awe for what the medal represents was apparent: When the replica arrived at Kennedy Space Center, Sellers emailed museum staff, writing: “Hello, everyone. I have received the Nobel Prize. (I’ve always wanted to say that.)”

After shepherding the artifact through 186 trips around the world during Atlantis’s mission to the ISS, Sellers donned white gloves this morning to hand the medal back to museum staff, saying: “Thanks for the loan.”

Afterward, the rest of the crew presented a video of mission footage from launch to landing. This fine piece of filmography had some truly hilarious examples of fun things to do in zero-G [playing with floating food just never gets old] but with a rock-n-roll soundtrack that requires copyright permissions to post on YouTube… Sorry, you just had to be there.

The crew then took questions from the horde of space fans assembled in the gallery, which revealed that boys and girls from across the country really want to know one thing: How do you get to be an astronaut?

It’s not easy: Up to this point only about 0.7 percent of applicants, on average, have become astronaut candidates, mission specialist Stephen Bowen told National Geographic News. Of those candidates, just a handful have made it into space.

“That’s why we were telling the kids that you have to love what you do” when you’re not on astro-duty, he said.

Bowen, for example, has degrees in electrical engineering and ocean engineering, and his “day job” is as a submarine officer for the U.S. Navy.

“NASA must have said, If we could only find someone who likes to live in a steel tube and eat really bad food, they’d make a great astronaut,” mission commander Kenneth Ham joked about Bowen’s selection into the astronaut corps.

Another STS-132 mission specialist, Garrett Reisman, has degrees in economics and mechanical engineering, and—when he’s not actually using spacecraft—he’s involved in spacecraft design.

Speaking of design, another important trait in an astronaut must be some serious physical tolerance.

Reisman, a veteran of just over 14 hours worth of spacewalks during the STS-132 mission alone, told NatGeo News that the current spacesuit has some “serious limitations” when it comes to comfort and dexterity.

“It’s like trying to change the oil in your car while wearing a medieval suit of armor,” he said.


Reisman, anchored to a robotic arm during a May 17 spacewalk.

—Image courtesy NASA

Because the suit has to be pressurized inside, range of motion is fairly limited: You can’t really bend your knees or put your arms over your head, so you have to be creative when it comes to designing tools for a given task, Reisman said.

Not to mention the part where every 24-hour period in orbit sees 16 sunrises and sunsets. When you swoop ’round the world in a mere 90 minutes, you have to be prepared for some extreme temperature changes.

Bowen added that, because spacewalkers need to perform intricate tasks while wearing stiff, puffy gloves, “you learn very quickly to keep your fingernails really short” to avoid injury.

As a girl who loves her manicures, can I just say: Yikes.

It’s tough to be an astronaut, for sure, and it may get even tougher as NASA wraps up the shuttle program and starts relying on Russia and private enterprise to get U.S. citizens into space.

But Bowen and Reisman agreed that the kids in today’s audience still have a fighting chance.

“By the time they’re ready, we’ll have teleporters to Mars!” Reisman quipped.

[As an addendum, here’s photographic proof that I got face time with people who have been in space. Squee!]


—Picture by Eric Long/NASM

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