Science

Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?

Since childhood, I have wanted to be an astronaut. I still would love to venture into space. If I never go to space, I at least hope to become involved with a few of NASA’s many projects. Perhaps I could study some of NASA’s moon rocks or meteorites. Or maybe I could become involved with the Mars missions. As a geochemistry graduate student at MIT, I have a strong chance of working with or for NASA one day, and I find the possibility exciting. However, I don’t think that there are many other twenty-somethings these days who are seriously contemplating a job with NASA. At least, there are far fewer than there were twenty or thirty years ago.

NASA has lost much of its 1950s and 1960s glamour. Looking around at my friends and classmates from my undergrad years, I find that most young people my age seem to want to find good-paying jobs in fields such as finance, consulting, and investment. I guess that working as a scientist or an engineer for NASA sounds like too much work for too little return. Working for NASA is a difficult, mediocre-paying job. Without the sparkle of “I help the astronauts go to the moon” or even “I walked on the moon,” NASA jobs are no longer so appealing.

NASA jobs have become geek jobs and not even super cool geek jobs. A safe, comfortable business job with the promise of a nice apartment and perhaps a sports car has more allure than a NASA job for many of America’s promising twenty-somethings, who otherwise might have made fine astronauts or space scientists or spacecraft engineers. What I see: business jobs are the sexy jobs, these days. NASA jobs? Not quite as sexy.

I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that there is still a sort of sexiness to working for NASA, but I don’t see it in my generation. Sure, people are still impressed if you tell them you work for NASA, but they’re not as impressed as they were twenty years ago, when NASA really had the right stuff. Today, the words “I graduated from such-and-such business school” are becoming just as impressive-sounding, to many people, as the words “I work for NASA.” Business school is not my cup of tea, but I do have to step back and acknowledge that it can be challenging, difficult work. My point is: it isn’t rocket science. NASA is rocket science. Rocket science in space.
That should be cool!

I suppose if one wants to go to space, one can just earn $20 million in finance and book a space tourist flight. Richard Branson will also soon be offering space tourists even cheaper space experiences. Don’t get me wrong. I support these private space ventures. I admire them and consider them very important for the development of spaceflight. However, I also find it very sad that NASA doesn’t have the same pizzaz that it did thirty years ago.

NASA is floundering these days, at least compared to the glory days of the race to the moon. In the 1960s millions of people around the world were glued to the TV screen for the moon landings. These days, who wants to watch a TV program about astronauts repairing parts of the already falling-apart space station? Or about how small pieces of foam keep NASA largely grounded?

Partly, the decline of NASA has to do with the decline of funding directed towards space exploration. The cold war is over, and there is no longer a space race. Potentially, China’s space program will one day inspire America to “keep up” in space, but currently I don’t think that other countries’ space programs are much of a threat to America’s national security or national identity. America still feels like the leader of space exploration, even if America’s space exploration is fading. I’m not sure why our government keeps cutting funding to NASA and keeps cutting science funding in general. Clearly, there is money. America spends millions every week in Iraq. If only a portion of this money were to be invested in science and in space, there would be so much researchers and explorers could do.

However, I don’t think the problem is just a lack of money. I also don’t think that NASA is spending money in smart ways. In my opinion, the space station is a great waste of time, effort, and money. By the time the astronauts finish constructing the whole station, the first parts of the station will need to be replaced. I think that the scientific return of the space station is also somewhat limited. A moon station would be better, in my opinion. Then at least scientists could spend time exploring the moon, and I also think a moon base has potential to be longer-lasting. I say: scrap the space staion and focus on a moon station. NASA does have plans to build a moon station, by 2024 supposedly, but meanwhile they will keep limping the space station along. Honestly, I don’t think that we could even land on the moon these days. We don’t have a spacecraft that can do it. We can build one, but we need some young, smart minds to do so.

I also think NASA should really step up plans for a manned mission to Mars. Admittedly, many people believe that manned missions are a waste of money and are too risky. Certainly, one can argue that a better use of resources, scientifically at least, is found in sending robots and rovers to Mars and other planets. However, manned missions are much more glamorous and adventurous than unmanned missions. While a few million, perhaps, would tune into a TV broadcast of a new rover or robot landing on Mars, I bet a billion would tune in for a manned Mars landing. Also, I think that manned missions are ultimately important for our species as a whole. Stephen Hawking thinks so, too.

A recent CNN article discusses how NASA realizes it no longer appeals to the masses, to youth in particular, the way it did in its glory days. They’re brainstorming how to use modern tools such as YouTube to make NASA more attractive to young people. I hope that some of their strategies work.

My personal contribution to NASA’s image? Whenever I hear a child say confidently that they want to be an astronaut, I reply: “That’s wonderful. I can’t think of a cooler job. You know what? I want to be an astronaut, too.”

Evelyn

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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21 Comments

  1. I think a geek poll would reveal more people would want to work for google than for the NASA. There is something sexy about corporate employment, and it's all to do with the money. As Aaron Price (of slacker astronomy) once said: The next step to becoming an astronomer, after getting your grounding in mathematics, physics and (these days) computing, the next step is to give up your dreams of being rich.

    I think the same can be said of a lot of science jobs. With the wealth gap growing in the states (and Canada and the UK and Ireland, dunno about the rest of europe) – money is becoming more of an issue, depsite overall increases in prosperity in the west.

    I always wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, rather than an astronaut per se. But to go into space? Oh my yes.

  2. Some of us would die alone in Mars even if it meant that was the wrong way to go. Material rewards and ego satisfaction killed the concept of sacrifice long ago, and conditioned adventure to results that *must* be cashed upon. We even lost our sense of humor (have you seen a corporate character or politician laughing lately?).

    "Greater purpose", and even "love for the art", can save humankind. If you're not for it, just accommodate for the new trend in comfort.

    But while we perceive it as different, it is a lonely road either way.

  3. I knew a girl in high school who was literally the SMARTEST person I've ever known. Our school, thanks to Honors credits, had a possible 5.0 GPA, and she got it. She had always wanted to be an astronaut, had gone to Space Camp a couple of times, the whole bit. As I recall (and I hope I'm not misremembering) she got in to both MIT and Harvard, choosing Harvard in the end due to a better financial aid package. She had wanted MIT due to its prestige in science, but accepted as a fall back a school that most people probably can't get into without a well-placed connection.

    I haven't heard much about her in the intervening years, but information has filtered back to me that she became a law student and now does that instead. I don't know what finally killed space for her, but I know it made me sad to hear she'd apparently forgone the old dream.

    As for me, space had never been my geeky kid science dream. I originally wanted to be a paleontologist, thanks to my love of dinosaurs. Heck, I was reading kid's dino books by age three! But after that, I moved more towards parapsychology for a while, chasing that old X-Files-influenced fantasy of 'proof.' And all along I loved biology and zoology, a field I now wish I had gone into. In fact, as I recall, that girl and myself were the only students in my grade to have gotten solid A's in both Bio. 1 and 2 (the college-level version). But in the end, it was not to be.

    This capitulation had little to do with the sensible aims of 'making money' or anything like that. I went in the even LESS profitable direction of liberal arts scholarship and a BA in English. Now the question facing me is, nine months from now when I've completed my MA in film studies…how on Earth do I plan to feed myself??

  4. I worked on a NASA project for about 7 years (not as a government employee but as an employee of a contractor) and while there were frustrations it was also very rewarding. In my experience, having worked on a NASA project does still have a prestige of coolness. Of course working for Google may be cool (because the actual work is cool) but in the end what NASA does by definition is cool. The Terra spacecraft has been orbitting earth for about 6 years now gathering around 180 GBytes of data each day on earth's land, oceans and atmosphere. The fact that we could build systems back then to support that is cool, the fact that we can do this type of science from space is really cool, but the knowledge that scientists are gaining from this and other satellites that make up Mission To Planet Earth (earthobservatory.nasa.gov) is WAY COOL.

    Maybe it's because I grew up during the moon launches, maybe it's because I grew up within site of Goddard Space Flight Center, and while other projects I've worked have been important (defense and public safety), work for NASA will probably always remain the coolest.

  5. I tried getting a post-doc at NASA at one point. The process is draconian. Normally, post-doc positions in my field were posted on this particular website. You send an application and a CV. For NASA, you need to locate all your old diplomas (not really easy when your old stuff is back home and your old school is on the other side of the Atlantic) and send them, with some sort of official stamp on them (only notarized copies). Then you need to write a research proposal. The person you want to work for might help you with some pointers for the proposal, but you have to write it on your own. This might at first seem like a good idea, but I was applying for a job to code on a big project with many collaborators. Basically I'm the type of person who attacks the problem at hand, whatever the group needs me to do, you know? I suggested avenues that might be interesting to explore in my proposal, and listed the areas I had worked in before. Not very sexy in terms of a research, but that is collaboration. Afterwards the proposal gets graded. Yes, you get a letter grade as if you were an undergrad. They can only take people who get an A. I got a B, so I didn't get in. I wish I hadn't bothered, I got another post-doc position after sending an application and talking on the phone for half an hour. Now, I'm out of science, and very, very happy that I never have to write another research proposal ever in my life.

  6. Whan I was young, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Mostly because my parents used to live in rental homes that didn't allow us to have pets, and I always wanted pets.

    As I grew older, I lost interest in the veterinarian path, although I still loved science most. In my final year of highschool, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I ended up doing industrial design because I liked drawing and making maquettes and miniatures. Although I always said I never wanted to do a desk job, but would prefer something adventurous, I ended up in IT and had, … a desk job for over 6 years now.

    They recently "released" me at my last job, and right now, I still have no idea what I want to do …

    I'd love to make a living doing science, or even something skeptical, but I don't have the training to do so. And I can't afford to go back to school I think.

    Maybe something will swing my way in the next couple of months. And otherwise, I'll just resign myself to wasting another half a decade sitting behind a computer screen while I figure out what it is I REALLY want to do :(

  7. Yeah. I guess part of the reason I haven't actively persued any new jobs (apart from being a lazy S.O.B.) is that I hope something will pop up at just the right moment. Something interesting and less boring than a desk job anyway.

    I don't plan on really starting to look for work until I'm back from TAM 5 at the start of February.

  8. I guess I have one of those jobs that kids love and want to be even though I don't study Dinosaurs. (Carboniferous paleoecology plant/insect interaction, nutrient cycles and evolution don't have the same ring.)

    But I still want to be an astronaut, just like Harrison Schmitt the only astronaut/geologist … so far.

  9. I once counted myself among those willing to undergo a one-way trip to Mars, even if it meant dying there after only a short time. Way cool while it lasted! Having since added a spouse and two daughters to my growing list of anchors (in a good way!), I find myself no longer willing to make that commitment. Too much risk, not enough reward. So now I just watch wistfully whenever we have a launch, and wonder what it would have been like.

    Not to complain, really. I still ended up as a scientist, getting to work each day on interesting problems in thin film microelectronics in a corporate research lab. I have lots of expensive "toys" at my disposal, and the salary's not bad either. All things considered, I don't know anyone I would trade lives with.

    Still, I love to read scifi stories where some random scientist accidentally invents a hyperdrive while working on something else – like thin film microelectronics… Now THAT would be cool.

  10. Ah, the old dream. I too grew up with the Apollo missions, and remember watching the first moon landing on one of my family's first TVs. Later we lived for some years in Lompoc, CA, just south of Vandenburg AFB, and I and my sister saw some spectacular missile launches.

    I still get a thrill watching a launch. I believe the expansion of human life and thought into space is a magnificent and necessary thing. The information streaming back to us now from Mars, Venus and Saturn (and in about 8 years, Pluto!) fills me with wonder and hope.

  11. I'm not even sure NASA was all that sexy twenty years ago, at least it wasn't to me at the time. I graduated with a BS in aerospace engineering in 1989, and had several job offers including NASA. They did not interview me, they couldn't give me much more than the barest description of what they wanted me to do if hired, they did not pay for a visit to the facility (in Huntsville–not somewhere this midwestern girl was willing to go sight unseen), did not try to sell me in any way on coming to work for them, and offered me 30% less pay than the other offers. I was 22 years old, and barely gave them a second thought.

    I took the higher paying job from the company that wined and dined me, worked for only a year and a half, and quit, not only that job, but that career entirely. One of my biggest regrets is not taking the job with NASA when I had the chance.

  12. I'd love if most of the twenty something would like to work for google, it would a far better oicture of the one that I see watching the western countries.

    We sells used cars and real estate, we are accountants and lawyers.

    The scientist, the dreamers, the real geeks, the ones who wants walk on the moon (or Mars) are in China, India, South Corea …

    This is so sad.

  13. I had always wanted to be a scientist; My father used to be a tech for G.E. Aerospace division, designing and implementing the attitude control systems used on the rockets. As a kid, I was enamoured of dinosaurs, and I loved space science as well, and physics, and biology, and evolutionary development. But unlike most kids, I was making a real study of it (well, as much as a five year old could). Of course, that got washed away by the ridicule of the other wee monst– erm, "children," and it became little more than a hobby, and then faded away almost completely by the age of twelve. First my love of paleontology…then astrophysics…all gone.

    The biggest obstacle for me, though, was Acalculea. It was frustrating that I couldn't even get consistent answers when attempting somple quadratic formulae! Even by the time I'd reached university, I tested into remedial algebra, and went on to flunk it. –Had it not been for symbolic logic, I would never have made it through the Quantitative Analysis requirements for my degree!

    So while I would love to blame others for my lack of Scientistness, I have to admit: I'm just too stupid to be a real scientist.

  14. The last interesting thing NASA did was to invite John Glenn on a flight… whoa, that WAS cool. I was glued to my TV. Otherwise, it's just not interesting to see how much public money can be spent with the least scientific return. What WAS the last scientific finding from NASA?

    I guess it's the adventure, not the science, that inspires- once that's gone it's about as exciting as a billion-dollar microscope. (and half as useful)

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