Living the dream: Soldiers selected as NASA astronaut candidates

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live
Then-Capt. Anne McClain poses with her OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter in Kirkuk, Iraq, May 2007. McClain, now a major, is one of two Soldiers selected for NASA's 2013 astronaut candidate class. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Anne McClain)

Then-Capt. Anne McClain poses with her OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter in Kirkuk, Iraq, May 2007. McClain, now a major, is one of two Soldiers selected for NASA’s 2013 astronaut candidate class. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Anne McClain)

“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut longer that I can even remember wanting to be an astronaut,” Maj. Anne McClain, Army test pilot, said.  “I believe I first told my mom when I was about three years old that that’s what I wanted to do. When I was five, I wrote a children’s book about a family blasting off to and space and truly have never said or wanted to do anything else.”

It’s easy to understand why: Space exploration, the career of astronaut, is one of the most prestigious jobs out there. It requires intelligence, adaptability and the ability to withstand never-before-experienced physical sensations. But kids aren’t thinking about that, they’re thinking about the “cool” factor, and space is just plain cool.

NASA, fortunately, takes applications. McClain and another Soldier, Maj. Andrew R. Morgan, an emergency physician and flight surgeon, were among the eight people selected for NASA’s 2013 Astronaut Candidate School at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Their resumes were pulled from 6,000 applications in one of the most competitive selection processes in recent years, NASA’s Manger for Astronaut Candidate Selection and Training Duane Ross said.

“We actually announce the process nationwide,” Ross explained. “We could just select within NASA, I guess, if we wanted to, but we announce it nationwide to give everybody a chance to apply. And we also notify all of the military and uniformed services that we’re having a selection so they can send us nominees.” Members of the military cannot apply for astronaut candidacy unless their units have nominated them first, which ensures that NASA knows a Soldier’s application is Army-approved.

Application and Selection

There are some prerequisites for applying to be an NASA astronaut. First, you must be a United States citizen. Second, you must meet experience requirements, which

Maj. Andrew Morgan rests on a helicopter in Helmand province, Afghanistan in 2009, where he was supporting a Special Forces mission during a spring offensive. Morgan will begin training as an astronaut candidate with NASA, Aug. 12. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Andrew Morgan)

Maj. Andrew Morgan rests on a helicopter in Helmand province, Afghanistan in 2009, where he was supporting a Special Forces mission during a spring offensive. Morgan will begin training as an astronaut candidate with NASA, Aug. 12. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Andrew Morgan)

includes having a degree in engineering, math or science.

“If you’re a pilot, you can have 1,000 hours of jet time and that qualifies,” Ross said. “If you’re not a pilot, then you have to have at least three years of technical, professional experience following receipt of your qualifying degree. And then, once you get down here, you have to be able to pass the NASA flight physical.”

Most applicants exceed the basic requirements, holding advanced degrees and extensive backgrounds in fields related to the astronaut profession. Ross also looks at whether the applicant gives back to the community on some level.

“Bottom line is you need nice people. I don’t care how smart you are if you’re not nice,” Ross said, laughing.

“To be selected as an astronaut candidate is a pretty long, circuitous route,” Morgan said. “It takes about 18 months. … It begins with an application on usajobs.gov just like you would for any (federal) job, (and) simultaneously applying for nomination through your service.”

The top four or five hundred candidates’ references were contacted about 10 months later, and then in November of 2012, a group of 120 were invited back for the first round of interviews, McClain explained. Finalists were selected and returned for a weeklong round of interviews at the Johnson Space Center in June 2013. McClain and Morgan were identified as part of the group of eight candidates NASA would train.

“Every time we got a call about the various stages of the interview, it almost felt like — I was almost as happy each time I got that phone call as I was (when they) ultimately called and told me I had been selected as an astronaut candidate,” Morgan said. “It was a thrill getting that phone call, and just thinking that I had survived another cut was so exciting.”

Morgan, who grew up during the space shuttle era, found space exploration inspiring. He moved around quite a bit as a military brat, and was able to visit the Johnson Space Center as a child. He saw the final shuttle launch with his 9-year-old son.

“I think being an astronaut had always been a long-term goal of mine,” he said. “The path to get there that I charted was one that was not as common, such as the test pilot route.” His son, three daughters and wife are all excited for the next stage of his career.

Morgan was commissioned at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1998, and went directly into medical school. In 2005, he completed a residency in emergency medicine at Madigan Army Medical Center in partnership with the University of Washington, and after was

Maj. Andrew Morgan conducts a medical clinic for Afghan nationals in Helmand province, Afghanistan in April 2009.  He was recently selected to be a member of NASA's 2013 astronaut candidate class -- on of two Soldiers who made the cut. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Andrew Morgan)

Maj. Andrew Morgan conducts a medical clinic for Afghan nationals in Helmand province, Afghanistan in April 2009. He was recently selected to be a member of NASA’s 2013 astronaut candidate class — on of two Soldiers who made the cut. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Andrew Morgan)

stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. He served with the Joint Special Operations Command and was the battalion surgeon for 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group.

“Medicine has just taught me a complimentary way of solving problems and that’s ultimately what (NASA) wanted us to do,” he explained, adding

that the candidates’ varied skills and training contribute to how the group will approach future challenges.

McClain’s experience with the application process was more direct. She also graduated from West Point, in 2002, and earned two masters degrees while studying abroad in England. McClain always wanted to be a helicopter pilot and returned home to attend flight school. She was an instructor pilot at Fort Rucker, Ala., and from there went to Naval Test Pilot School, where she recently graduated.

“It was really neat to be part of the process and every time I got a call back it was just something out of a dream. You prepare yourself to not be selected, but I don’t know that you can ever adequately prepare to be selected,” McClain said. Her mother was thrilled that she was selected.

“She’s been listening for a long time that this is something that I wanted to do, and she was very, very excited when I called her and she had the same reaction I did. She yelled and she cried and she was very, very excited,” McClain added.

Training

Official training for astronaut candidates begins Aug. 12, 2013, and the two-year candidate school is even more rigorous than the application process.

To begin with, everyone has to learn how to fly. Candidates are given Space Flight Readiness Training in a T-38 aircraft, Ross explained.

“The pilots fly front seat, and fly the airplane, but the non-pilots also fly in the backseat, but they have to be a fully functioning crew member,” he said.

NASA has an arrangement with the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., to send non-pilots and people with no military operational training over to receive basic flight indoctrination, which familiarizes the candidates with the flight environment, flight planning and flight equipment and systems. Flight indoctrination training is around six weeks long, Ross said, and includes a week of water survival training.

Land survival training is conducted in Maine, at the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape course facility.

Once back at the Johnson Space Center, candidates must maintain certain flight goals: Pilots must log a certain number of hours a month, while non-pilots must log a certain number of hours a quarter.

“One of the key things we do is the spacecraft systems training. Right now, our spacecraft is the International Space Station,” Ross said. “So they have a full syllabus of systems courses to prepare them to go to the International Space Station. They do space walk training — we call it ‘extra-vehicular activity.’ And before they do that they have to be SCUBA qualified … most people show up SCUBA qualified but if they don’t we get them there, and then they do their EVA training in the big white spacesuit in our big swimming pool.”

Candidates will participate in Russian language school so they can interact with NASA’s international partners on the ISS, as well as complete robotics training, so they can operate certain systems on the space station.

“They do earth science (and) geology training even though we are not going to a different planetary surface right now,” Ross said. “It’s some time (before) we probably will again, but every mission aboard the space station has an Earth-observation component to it.”

Maj. Anne McClain sits in the cockpit of an AH-64D Apache helicopter. She flew the helicopter as part of test pilot training at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Md., June 2013. Aug. 12, she will begin her training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as an astronaut candidate. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Anne McClain)

Maj. Anne McClain sits in the cockpit of an AH-64D Apache helicopter. She flew the helicopter as part of test pilot training at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Md., June 2013. Aug. 12, she will begin her training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as an astronaut candidate. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Anne McClain)

Throughout the training, the candidates are taught by experienced instructors and have a senior astronaut supervising the class. Morgan and McClain’s class will have retired Army Col. Pat Forrester, a graduate of the 1996 candidate class with several space flights under his belt.

“The key thing that we want is to not screen anyone out,” Ross said. “We want everybody to succeed, so they get all the training, all the help, all the instruction that they need. They’re just people, you know, some people are stronger in some things than others, and we understand that. But we don’t want anybody to not complete the syllabus.”

NASA has a long history of selecting military members from the various branches to become astronauts. The Army’s selection record itself is excellent; there have been Soldiers in each of the last five candidate classes. Currently, there are four Army colonels serving as active astronauts in NASA’s program.

NASA and the Army

McClain believes her training with the Army was pivotal to being selected as an astronaut candidate.

“The Army was a fantastic track to achieve these goals. First and foremost the teamwork aspect and the leadership aspect … I didn’t originally join the Army to be a leader, but it is one of the sources of most pride for me … being a good leader,” she said. Her leadership and teamwork experiences with the Army will be skills that can directly transfer to her position at NASA, in addition to her training as a pilot.

Morgan agreed that his Army experience would be helpful, and added that the opportunity to represent his service and his career field at NASA is something he looks forward to. “I couldn’t imagine a more fulfilling way to spend a career in space serving at NASA than to be able to represent the Army, and represent some parts of the Army that had not been represented in the space program, to include the Army Medical Department and the Army Special Operations Command,” he said.

Both Morgan and McClain are excited at the prospect of one day living on the ISS. They agree that any mission they can participate in would be the ideal mission and are humbled to be a part of NASA.

“To represent the Army at NASA has put me over the moon and it’s more than I ever expected,” Morgan said. “I can’t wait to see what plays out ahead of me over the upcoming years.”

“I think throughout history humans always had a propensity to explore and to go beyond whatever the confines are that we know. And at one point that was to go across oceans, at one point that was to go across lands, and now it’s to go beyond our planet,” McClain said. “To me, NASA is such an inspiring and unifying organization. We think of NASA as an entity within the United States but it is really an international cooperation of human beings at their best, and to me it really embodies the best of the human spirit throughout the world.”

For the video story about the newest Army astronaut candidates, visit http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/08/nasa-selects-two-army-officers-as-astronaut-candidates/.

  • Paula Wood

    well done it really great to see that it not Airforce can do it so all best luck !