Ask Ethan: How do I become an astrophysicist/astronaut?
If you have dreams of space, here’s your guide… to more than just school!
“I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” -Ed White, at the end of his first spacewalk
We all had dreams of what we wanted to be when we were younger. But how many of us grow up to achieve what the childhood versions of ourselves set out to be? Millions of people want to go to space, but only thousands have ever been. Scientists and doctors are never far from the list of what people want to be when they grow up, but only a small percent ever get there. So what advice would you give to a young teenager, at the start of their life, who wants to become an astronaut or an astrophysicist? We get our chance on today’s Ask Ethan, thanks to Gabe Denty, who asks:
I am looking to hopefully become an astronaut/astrophysicist when I am older, I thought it would be good if I asked a real astrophysicist what it would be like to have that kind of career. […] Although my overall goal is to become an astronaut, I have heard it is not exactly like a full-time career, so if I was to pair it with anything else, astrophysics would probably be it. I’d love to know what you have heard about astronauts and the different kinds of astrophysicists, or if there is some other career involved with space that you would recommend for a kid who loves to explore and adventure!
There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start at where you are and where you’re looking.
At the start of high school, there are a few things you likely know about yourself:
- what you excel at,
- what excites you,
- what motivates you,
- what seems like the ultimate dream,
- what you want to work hard at,
- what you want to improve at,
- and what you want to keep learning about for as long as they’ll let you.
Since you asked me, I’m going to give you my best advice.
If space exploration and astrophysics are your goals, the things to focus on right now is to develop the foundational skills you’ll need to have in place to be good at those jobs. Practically, the biggest skills you need to develop are in the arenas of problem solving, both alone and in groups. When we’re in school, we tend to look at problem solving as an individual activity: here’s a math problem, sit down and solve it. Here’s a chemistry equation, go balance it and find the products. Here’s an essay, go analyze it and find the meaning and the desired effect of the text.One thing you can do — and you’re right to do it — is to take as many advanced courses as you can, and learn how to solve more difficult problems. Yes, take chemistry, biology, physics, geology/earth science and math, including the AP versions of all of those courses if you can. Learn how to program in at least one computer language. And this will get you far, but it won’t get you everywhere. These are valuable skills to develop, but they’re not enough.
The reason these skills aren’t enough is because the problems you’re going to face are too big for any one person to solve on their own. Even if you were the smartest person alive in history, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for you to solve the problems you’re going to face in the limited time you have to do them on your own. So you need to learn how to work in teams. You need to learn how to solve a small problem to make a contribution to a larger team by following someone else’s lead. You need to learn how to communicate effectively, both in terms of listening and in terms of speaking/writing. And you need to demonstrate leadership, which can involve anything from running your own team to simply speaking up in an assertive but constructive (and non-arrogant) manner when the people in charge are making a decision that takes the team in the wrong direction.
So learn history. Take advanced (English) language courses, and learn a foreign language, too. And participate in team/group activities, too, even if it’s just hanging out with a group of awkward, insecure teenagers. (Because, at 14, that’s what everyone is, even the cool kids.) When high school approaches its end, there will be a lot of potential paths open to you, and this is where the astronaut and astrophysicist tracks diverge. You can be both, like Jeffrey Hoffman, Stan Love or John Grunsfeld, but those are the three in the history of NASA that I know of. (There may be others, but it’s less than 0.1% of all astronauts.) The reason it’s so hard is because there are three ways to become an astronaut these days: the pilot track, the scientist/engineer/doctor track, and the ultra-rich-multimillionaire track.
If you want to pilot a spacecraft, join the military. Yes, there are technically other ways to get enough flight experience on advanced enough equipment, but for all practical purposes, you’ll want to join the military to become a pilot. If that’s your goal — to pilot a spacecraft — my recommendation is to join the Air Force and get as much experience (i.e., as many flight-hours) as you can piloting the most advanced aircraft you can. That’s been the top way to become an astronaut going all the way back to Project Mercury and the very inception of NASA. It’s still true today.
If you want to go the scientist/engineer/doctor track, you certainly can. Currently, NASA gets 3 out of every 6 seats aboard the ISS, with one of those sometimes going to an international partner. The only way to get one of those NASA seats is to be selected as a NASA astronaut. The key thing is to perform the functions requires of an astronaut, and that usually doesn’t have very much to do with the skills you develop outside of astronaut training. Instead, what NASA looks at is your achievements within your profession, the skills you’ve demonstration and your aptitude. Every time NASA issues a candidate call for astronauts, thousands of competent, qualified people apply for each spot. You basically have a 0.1% chance of getting chosen, and realistically you’ll only get about three cycles (chances) where you’re in the right age range. There’s a guide to maximizing your chances here written by astronaut hopeful Brian Shiro, but even he was cut in the later rounds of candidate selection. Cady Coleman is a (non-astrophysicist) scientist who made it, and you might enjoy her guide, here.
Finally, you can simply become very rich. The other three seats on the ISS go to Russia, and unlike NASA, they will simply sell one of those seats to anyone with enough money to pay for it. Rather than a mission specialist, payload specialist, commander or pilot, you’ll be a spaceflight participant. The only catch? “Enough money” appears to be in the ballpark of around $40,000,000. So until there’s private, commercial spaceflight available to the general public, those are your options.
But if you want to go the second route and to go for it by becoming an astrophysicist? Absolutely possible, with a lot of hard work and a little luck. You’ll want to go to college and major in either physics, astronomy or aeronautics, and then to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics. There are four general types of astrophysicists: observers (who collect data with telescopes), instrumentalists (who design and build telescopes, cameras, observatories and more), theorists (who work to predict and/or explain the data observers collect), and data scientists (who write and run simulations or perform large-scale computing analysis). Many people specialize in one but are competent in two or even three of these; I’m a theorist who has written and run my own simulations and modified the simulations of others many times, and I’ve done an observational project once. Being an astrophysicist can involve a lot of travel, a lot of hands-on work (particularly for instrumentalists and somewhat for observers), a lot of communication and — most definitely — a lot of collaborative teamwork.
Developing the astronaut skill set is somewhat tangential to being an astrophysicist, but if you’re passionate about it, you can do it. At all points along the way, it’s not about getting a grade or competing with your classmates, but what you learn, what you accomplish, and what you can demonstrably do as a result.
But while we’re on this topic, be aware that as you experience more of life and as you go down any of the roads open to you, you may find that you don’t like the path you’re on. Many people start out with your dreams and work to turn them into goals, but most, at some point, find that it’s not as rewarding as they had hoped. Maybe there’s something else that’s more interesting. Maybe the day-to-day work is crushing your soul. Maybe the big dream at the end isn’t enough to justify a drudgery you aren’t enjoying. Or maybe, in the case of being an astronaut, you grow too tall or gain too much weight. (Yes, there are restrictions based on physical characteristics!) I won’t be able to tell you how to deal with it, but one thing I will tell you, unequivocally, is this: don’t be afraid to have a crisis. Don’t be afraid to own up to the fact that what you’re doing may not be working for you, and you may need to back up and pick a different direction for your life.
You will encounter those who will label you a failure if you don’t achieve the dreams you have today, and I am telling you now that those people don’t matter. You may wind up loving every step along the way, and you may want to keep on doing it as long as someone will let you make a living doing it; if so, more power to you. But if you find yourself unhappy, unfulfilled and depressed at the thought of going back to another day of work you don’t care about, don’t be afraid to take a step back and try something new. You should go for the life you want, but if the life you want becomes different from the life you used to want, don’t feel compelled to stay on a path when you don’t enjoy the journey anymore. We are still free to choose our own adventures in life, and to choose what our next step is with each and every step we take. After all, in the immortal words of (non-astronaut) Frank Zappa,
If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.