STS-107 Caramba log 3 - About astronauts

NASA selects its US astronaut corps through civil service job announcements and each of the military services. In general, mission specialists and payload specialists are selected from civilian applicants and flightcrew are selected from military applicants.

However there are enough exceptions to this observation to render this generalization very loose indeed. Mission specialists invariably hold advanced degrees and work experience in a hard science-related field (e.g. medicine, engineering, etc.), and additionally pursue activities involving some degree of risk, e.g. flying, mountaineering, etc. For example one member of the 1995 astronaut class holds a Ph.D. in geoscience and had been crewmember on a deep-sea submersible prior to joining NASA. Kalpana, also a member of the 1995 class, holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering and is an active airplane and glider pilot. The selection process is quite thorough and includes extensive background checks, interviews and medical examinations. After all that is complete, applicants are on pins and needles until receiving word one way or the other from the astronaut office.

With very few exceptions, astronauts do not become astronauts because that is a goal they have always had; there are just too few positions available. The general path taken is some combination of advanced education, physically challenging activities, military service, and significant personal accomplishment. Individuals possessing these qualifications become astronauts when the notion strikes sometime during their career and NASA is actively recruiting for the corps. Common characteristics possessed by all of these individuals are determination and persistence. Native ability is quite variable among the corps (though there certainly are no dullards) but this is secondary to attitude. An interesting example is one of Kalpana's crewmembers on STS-87, who while earning a Bachelor's degree in music, took mathematics courses necessary to provide sufficient background for later earning a Master's degree in aeronautical engineering.

Personalities among the corps tend to very focused, practical, results-driven and self-confident. Unfortunately these characteristics sometimes give the impression of bland and humourless individuals. This is somewhat mitigated by the ongoing existence and public performances by "Max Q", a rock band composed exclusively of astronauts. ("Max Q", where "Q" is engineering notation for dynamic pressure, refers to the period during a launch when air pressure on the shuttle assembly has reached its maximum allowable value.) In some cases self-confidence impairs the ability to get along with others - particularly when first selected for the astronaut corps - but for the vast majority, this passes. The STS-107 crew is very fortunate to be comprised of individuals with great senses of humour, who work extremely well together, and whose commander bends over backwards to maintain good morale, The latter is potentially an especially difficult task given the now 18-month launch delay. Can you say, "all dressed up with nowhere to go"? It is a good sign when crewmembers and/or their families choose to associate with each other in non-work contexts, especially after working together closely for the past two and one-half years.

In summary, it can be said that astronauts - and others who reach similar plateaus of success in life - are ordinary individuals with extraordinary determination and persistence: attitude is everything.

J P Harrison

The foregoing are the personal observations of Jean-Pierre Harrison and do not constitute an official statement or endorsement by NASA or any NASA employee or contractor.

Commander Husband
Rick D Husband
William C McCool
Payload Commander
Michael P Anderson
Mission Specialist
Kalpana Chawla
Mission Specialist
Laurel B Clark
Payload Specialist
Ilan Ramon
Mission Specialist
David M Brown

NASA links:
Astronaut Biographies


Click here to go to the Columbia mission STS 107 Logs index