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Outside Editorial: So you want to be an astronaut?

Posted: February 13, 2012 - 1:06am

The following editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

“... The idea here ... seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.” — Tom Wolfe, “The Right Stuff”

Who could forget Tom Wolfe’s heady description of the moxie required to strap yourself into a tiny capsule perched atop a powerful rocket and, fingers crossed, venture into cold, unforgiving space?

Wolfe minted that wondrous phrase in the late 1970s, around the time NASA was deluged with a record number of astronaut applicants.

Today, the remaining American space shuttles trundle off to museums. Space-bound American astronauts must hitch a ride with the Russians to the International Space Station where they ... conduct science experiments and fix the toilet.

You might expect that NASA wouldn’t find many takers for a less-than-dazzling mission. But the space agency recently announced that it reaped a near record number of applications for a handful of openings in the Astronaut Office: 6,372 candidates for nine to 15 jobs. Despite the fact that NASA probably won’t launch any deep-space missions until the beginning of the next decade, if then.

Why are astronaut applications soaring?

Probably isn’t the salary. Astronauts earn $64,724 to $141,715 a year.

Nor the fame. Who can name an astronaut from the last 20 years?

High unemployment here on terra firma? Maybe. But where’s the job security with a federal budget in free fall and NASA always a ripe target for cuts?

Nevertheless, we admire those 6,372 brave souls seeking one of the most dangerous jobs ever created.

Today’s candidates need more than a full ration of courage and resourcefulness under pressure. An advanced degree in math or science helps. You’ll need to swim three pool lengths in a flight suit, with tennis shoes. If you don’t know Russian, plan to learn it.

Those 6,372 people are willing to bet that the American quest to explore space can’t be shackled by budget woes forever. That this is merely an interlude in the mission. That they won’t be doomed to have the right stuff ... at the wrong time.

That’s a good bet. But will space exploration resume before this generation of astronauts, this chosen few, lose their edge?

Americans remember the boldness of the Gemini astronauts who pushed the envelope. The spirit that propelled Neil Armstrong and Co. to the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969. The courage of shuttle astronauts who followed the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

This new crop of astronauts may — or may not — get a chance to explore near-Earth asteroids. They can dream about planting the flag on the moon or maybe even Mars. But to thrive as astronauts, they’ll need another trait, just as important as the right stuff: patience.

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