How NASA Will Choose Astronauts for Its Incredible Journey to Mars

Christine Corbett Moran was in Antarctica when she got the news: NASA wanted to interview her, in person, for the next class of astronauts. Moran is a coder and theoretical astrophysicist, and she’d been holed up in the southernmost part of the world for 10 months, studying the echoes of the Big Bang. She was scheduled to leave the coldest continent in November anyway, so four days after NASA rang, on October 18, she booked the five flights necessary to get to Houston and sell her qualifications to space-agency officials.

Moran—who has worked in propulsion at SpaceX , co-led creation of the iOS version of the encrypted communication app Signal, and minored in philosophy—probably wouldn’t have been as attractive an astronaut candidate historically as she is today. But NASA’s missions have evolved. When the agency put out its latest application call, it specified that the lucky few might fly in Orion, a deep-space vessel meant to make the #journeytomars. And that kind of long, tight, potentially science-centric job lends itself to a different resume than astronaut calls past. Say, someone who knows science and software and can stay sane at the South Pole.

Moran isn’t publicly advocating for her special set of motivations or qualifications—NASA prefers to keep the details of its process in-house, and she prefers to oblige. But it’s pretty easy to see how her experience could fit NASA’s future vision of an astronaut. Things that are the same in Antarctica and on a long-distance mission to Mars: constant darkness, limited mobility, and the fact that if you take your hands out of your gloves, you could lose them.

And Moran has proven herself hardy in that environment. “Most of the things that I like doing happen indoors,” she says. She loves five-hour programming binges; she reads; she learns to play instruments and speak languages; she writes science fiction. She knows how to keep herself busy. Maybe busy enough to go to Mars.

Astro-not

From its inception, NASA has been concerned with astronauts’ ability to fly flying objects. Its first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, were military test pilots. They had to be, according to the application call. And while no one explicitly banned non-white people, the demographic from which NASA drew candidates didn’t really contain people of color. The agency selected its first black astronaut, Ed Dwight, in 1961, but he never went to space.

NASA backed away from the man-in-uniform requirement in the ’60s, anticipating the lunar missions. They wanted to include scientists who could decipher Moon rocks, and then train them in piloting. This was a radical departure, in NASA’s opinion. But the first six scientist-astronauts nonetheless looked a lot like the jet-handling ones of yore: white, dudely.

Back then, the agency would have tossed Moran’s application right out. Women were explicitly banned. A young Hillary Clinton once wrote NASA to inquire about what she needed to do to become an astronaut, and NASA replied that she could not be one.

“Then with the shuttle, everything changed.” says John Logsdon, who founded the Space Policy Institute. NASA admitted its first class of female astronauts in 1978, for shuttle flights. The program goals welcomed those without ace-flyer bravado or a uniformed—and so a uniform—background. “Some would fly, and some would operate experiments,” says Logsdon. With division of duties came (some) diversification of people.

Now the shuttle is no more. But NASA’s crewed mission plan will (eventually, someday, fingers crossed) send astronauts to Mars. The class to which Moran applied back in early 2016 will be veteran space-suit-wearers when that actually happens—meaning they could be the commanders of humans’ first exploration of another planet.

That trip—around 2.5 years—will require personal and interpersonal zen. Astronauts will have to maintain chill as their tin can home travels through the heartless vacuum of space toward a planet that is basically Arches National Park but bigger. They have to keep the spacecraft going; they have to do research; they have to stop themselves from snapping and snapping at each other. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, Carter, you’ve got to squeeze the astronaut toothpaste from the bottom, or I’ll open the airlock”—none of that.

Still, no one except NASA, who did not respond to a request for comment, can say what it’s looking for this time. But brain-based stability—the kind you have and hone when you’re stuck in Antarctica for the better part of a year—is likely key. “I suspect that there will be a bit more emphasis in the selection on the psychological characteristics and ability to work in a group under stressful circumstances,” says Logsdon.

Agility, too, can’t hurt. Knowing how to debug code—software playing a larger role now than it did in the ’60s, on Earth as it is in heaven—and do science: It’s hard to imagine that’s a bad thing. But the bigger shift, Logsdon thinks, could be in scientific specialty. On the ISS, astronauts did microgravity experiments—like how nanoparticles behave in liquid or whether decapitated flatworms can grow their heads back. On the red planet, though, NASA would do well to employ some geologists or (if we’re being hopeful) biologists. Scientists of all stripes, though, are trained in the kind of problem-solving that comes in handy in a space pinch.

And maybe officials recently interviewed some solid such candidates. We really don’t know! NASA does not release the names of people who make it over hurdles until the final one.

But Moran herself missed the in-person interview, transportation from the least habitable place on Earth being notoriously tricky.

She—and NASA—rolled with it, Skyping each other like modern citizens of the universe.

Moran, and the other interviewees with backgrounds unknown, will have to wait until the new year to learn whether they passed the bar. If so, she’ll undergo another set of interviews and tests, and learn in June whether she has made the leap from “astronaut hopeful” to “astronaut.” But regardless of who the agency chooses or what qualifications they weight heaviest, their shift toward valuing a wider set of experiences from a wider swath of people mirrors what businesses and universities already know (or should): Diverse groups simply do better. If a bunch of white-guy test pilots could take humans to the Moon, imagine the kind of moon-shooting that might come from a better-rounded team.

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