Everyone has dreamt about being an astronaut, right? Floating above the Earth, looking down on the oceans, clouds and continents. Kicking up the dust as you bound across the magnificent desolation of the lunar landscape. Marvelling at the vast plains, canyons and mountains of Mars.
Fifty years ago that dream was beyond the reach of everyone except a few elite pilots – super-fit, super-humans brimming with patriotism and self-confidence. But now it seems not a week goes by without an opportunity being offered for a flight to Mars, mission to the Moon or a quick sub-orbital tourist trip.
So just how easy is it to become an astronaut? And do you still need the right stuff or just the right money? If you are currently considering a career as an astronaut, here some options:
1. Fly in a space plane
Following the successful atmospheric test of Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane and the stationary test-firing of rival XCOR Aerospace’s rocket motor the space tourism era is dawning. However, the costs of $200,000 per trip with Virgin or $95,000 with XCOR make this an option only for the extremely wealthy or well connected.
An opportunity to fly in the XCOR space plane was also recently offered in a competition run by the deodorant brand Lynx (known as Axe in the US). This proved more controversial than perhaps the organisers anticipated, after the campaign only targeted men to enter (I should declare an interest, my wife is through to the next UK round after a campaign to encourage women to take part). There are bound to be more competitions in future. Virgin, for example, is currently running one for members of its frequent flier programme, although only extremely frequent fliers need apply.
The obvious problem with space tourism is the amount of money required for a relatively short space experience. The planes will not make it into orbit, so you will only get a few minutes of weightlessness (with Virgin, for instance, you get six). The other issue is whether it really makes you an astronaut. The pilots of these planes are, most definitely, highly skilled, highly trained astronauts. But you are merely a passenger. Just as sitting at the back of a 747 does not make you an airline pilot, then sitting in the back of a spacecraft of these does not make you an astronaut.
The only current space tourism option that comes close to making you a real astronaut is to sign-up with Space Adventures for a 10-day trip to the International Space Station. And that costs $50 million. The good news is that if space tourism becomes successful, then the price of getting into space is likely to go down.
Qualifications: Money and/or luck
2. Join a one-way trip to Mars
Everyone’s talking about Mars One – the Dutch-led group that plans to send humans on a one-way trip to Mars. The project has a wildly optimistic timetable, suggesting establishing permanent habitation on Mars by 2023.
Launching its recruitment programme, the organisation claimed to be concerned with recruiting people for a range of abilities. “Gone are the days when bravery and the number of hours flying a supersonic jet were the top criteria,” said Norbert Kraft, Mars One’s Chief Medical Director. “We are more concerned with how well each astronaut lives and works with others and their ability to deal with a lifetime of challenges.” You will also need to be healthy, fit and probably have some useful practical skills.
If that sounds like you, then join the 78,000 people who have already applied. However, given that advisors include a creator of TV show Big Brother, and the project will be funded through selling broadcast rights of the endeavour, sceptics suggest that people who are entertaining on TV are more likely to be selected.
And, remember, you will not be coming back. If it does not work out for you: tough. Fundamentally, Mars One plans to send fit, healthy, excited Earthlings to another planet. Where they will die.
Qualifications: Fit, telegenic, not too fussed about the Earth
3. Mars and back
If you would rather go to Mars and return to Earth in one piece, then Dennis Tito may have the answer. The space tourist and entrepreneur has founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation to send astronauts on a round trip to the red planet. Unfortunately, you will not get to land but instead pass within 160km (100 miles) of Mars before heading back to Earth. The 18 month mission is due for launch in 2018, although Tito has yet to secure funding to make it a reality.
So who can apply? The foundation has suggested that a middle-aged, married couple would be ideal for the trip. A quick look at the small print, suggests they also need to be American. If you are the sort of person who can imagine spending 18 months cooped up in a small room with your partner, drinking your recycled urine while your home world recedes into the far distance, then you are a better person than me.
Qualifications: An extremely strong marriage and/or prenup
4. Buy a trip to the Moon
Do you find the idea of sub-orbital tourist flights too tame? Are you uninspired by Mars? Do you have a spare $1.4 billion? Then you can contract the Golden Spike Company to put together a lunar landing mission for you. Named after the ceremonial spike that joined the transcontinental railroad across America, Golden Spike claims to have the expertise to fly expeditions to the Moon, opening up “an enduring link to the final frontier”.
You do not necessarily have to be a billionaire to apply. In theory, the offer is open to corporations or even countries. Political leaders could use it to distract people from their economic mismanagement. Maybe you could get together a group of friends to raise the cash to take the next giant leap for mankind?
Like many of these proposals, Golden Spike is made up of serious people but has yet to have anyone come forward with the cash. And, as we have reported in this column before, the technical obstacles to return to the Moon are formidable. As with many of the other astronaut options here, it is only theoretical.
Qualifications: Money. Lots and lots of money.
5. Sign up with a space agency
You know when job adverts say “we are seeking an outstanding individual”? The people that recruit astronauts really mean that. If you are – or aspire to be – a genuinely exceptional person with good heath and relevant skills, then look out for your local space agency’s next recruitment campaign and you might be in with a chance.
To quote from the European Space Agency’s astronaut recruitment website: “Space agencies are looking for the best people possible.”
I have been lucky enough to meet and interview a lot of real astronauts – from Moon walkers to the latest trainees. They may not always have been the most likeable individuals but, without exception, they have been deeply impressive people.
Most of the Apollo astronauts and early Russian cosmonauts were military or test pilots, their flying skills already honed to near-perfection. Even today, the selection process tends to favour pilots. Other professions with a good chance of making the running include engineers and scientists. The second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, for instance, was both a pilot and held a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Space Agencies seek out a combination of professional skills, fitness and personalities suited to spending time in stressful, cramped conditions. To apply, you also have to live in a country that supports a human space programme. If you are a citizen, for example, of the US, Russia, China, Europe, Japan or Canada, then you are in with a chance.
Qualifications: You have the right stuff
So, unfortunately, it seems that unless you have plenty of spare cash or you are one of the “best people”, becoming an astronaut remains extremely difficult. Sure, there are more options now than 50 years ago, but it is likely to remain an elite profession for many decades to come.
I hate to break it to potential astronauts, but the vast majority of you may have to lower your career expectations.