Astronaut Job Interview 2000-2011

2000-2015 by Brian Mork

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Introduction

When I was about 9 years old, I found a large balsa wood and silk model airplane in my parent's basement.  It was absolutely fascinating that when I wiggled one aileron, the other one "way over on the other wing" moved the other way.  After a lot of school and military work, I applied to be an astronaut through the Air Force in 1993, 1995, and 1997. In 1998, I separated from the Active Duty military to the Reserves, and I applied in 1999 as a civilian.  The last week of January 2000, I received a phone call from Teresa Gomez, of the NASA astronaut selection office, inviting me down for an astronaut interview the week of February 5th through February 11th. Although I made it into the final 120 of over 3000 applicants, I wasn't ultimately selected.  In 2004, I sent in an application package, but was not invited for an interview. I again applied under the new USAJOBS/NASA application process for the 2009 starting class, for which NASA received about 3300 applications.  I was asked for medical information (made it into the "highly qualified" basket), but was not invited for an interview. I applied the 7th time for the 2013 starting class, and I was not asked for medical information.  Mike Fossum was selected the seventh time he applied.  In early 2016, I'll submit my 8th application, spanning 23 years.  In the meantime, I have kept busy doing other things.

If you have nobody to look over your application package or prep you for the week of interviews, give me a call. After doing this for 20 years and talking with dozens of peers, and being friends with those that have both been accepted, and those that haven't, I'm convinced that simply understanding the process and removing the "bogeyman unknown" can really improve your chances and put you at ease.

However, knowing too much about the process can be bad, too.  Information has become so fluid and rampant on the Internet that people began to memorize and scheme and plan on how to behave for a week.  It tends to creates cardboard applicants. So, starting with the 2009 selection process, they had interviewees sign a non-disclosure agreement about the interview.  If you are over-the-top interested in information about the application process, fill out a FOIA request.  Remember, after all, NASA is a government organization. That said, I think it's not worth your time. Think of the process like a Disney World ride - let the water splash on you; if you applied, you've already chosen the log ride :-)

Chronology

February 2000, on the flight down to Texas for the interview, I met one other astronaut-looking fellow on the plane into town, and it turns out he was one of the interviewees I had spoken with on the phone ahead of time.  We hit it off, and enjoyed the rest of the time throughout the week. As of 2011, I still swapped emails with him and enjoyed pictures of a homebuilt aircraft he is building.  Most people arrived at the hotel Saturday from about 2pm until after 10pm. If you have a chance, take an early flight.  It's good to settle in and chat with other interviewees as they come in. In the evening, those of us in the hotel contacted the local folks, and headed out for dinner to get to know each other.  We left word at the front desk, and more people kept showing up at the restaurant as they arrived.  The waitress handled the chaos with aplomb.

NASA Interview Schedule

In preparation for the 2000 interview, I decided to take on a certain "team building project".  I had already been corresponding with one other person from the Midwest who received an invite for the same week.  He managed to acquire a list of email addresses for everybody coming down for the interview week.  I emailed or called everyone, explained the project, collected shirt sizes, and then ordered about 20 dark blue golf shirts and had "Ascan Interview 2000" embroidered on the front. I jammed them all into my suitcase and distributed them the first night we got together before the interview week started.  It was kind of cool to all show up in matching shirts on Sunday. As we were welcomed Sunday by John Young, he looked out at the sea of matching shirts, and said, "Nice looking shirts. One of the local candidates must have been busy."  It disappointed me that he assumed the project could have only been done by an applicant with local resources.

At 11am on Sunday the formal activities started, which started with a welcome brief, distribution of schedules, and other adminitrivia.

A typical page (Monday) of the schedule is reproduced above, with each row representing a different persons' schedule.  Tuesday through Thursday are similar, but Friday has more open time.  Many people will need the extra time to re-do medical tests.

 

Group Photo
Sunday morning just before heading out to the 11am meeting. Nigel and Nicole, where are you?!

My wife and I had coordinated with others ahead of time to get matching dark blue polo shirts for everybody in the class.  It looked really sharp, although I was disappointed when John Young made comments presuming it must have been the work of a local person.

Computer Test Room
Psychological testing Sunday afternoon.  I remember 4 of the 10 scheduled cognitive (IQ) tests, which are scored only after a person is selected.  Six personality tests from various vendors (1000-2000 total questions) served as a foundation for the 4 hour in person interview scheduled later in the week.

Bio Chair
Bio kinematics testing chair.  They took all sorts of body measurements and photographs.  The main testing centered around multiple extender/retracter muscle pairs.  They didn't look for strength, but rather repeatability and discontinuities in the force/position curves, indicative of injury.

Bare Chested
Getting zipped up in the rescue sphere.  The entire test is done in a room very similar to a meat locker (temperature and decor).

Ball
Inside the PRS, or "personal rescue sphere".  For astronauts, a PRS is a way to get from a disabled station or shuttle to a rescue ship.  For interviewees, it's a test of claustrophobia and a place to sleep. [Word from 2003 is that the PRS is no longer used.]

Off-site Eye Testing
Retinal pictures, peripheral vision mapping, timed acuity tests, corneal surface topography, etc, etc.

Eye Machine
Checking those diopters with iris and lens muscles paralyzed using industrial grade eye drops.

Probes & Shades
Just prior to the treadmill test.  85% max heart rate is sufficient, but they won't tell you until you hit 100% (220-your age).  When I asked "Why?", they pleasantly answered "Because it gives a chance to see more problems above 85%".  Equipment monitors O2 inflow, work output, and EKG.  In addition to the treadmill, you'll have at least 3 other EKG hookups, including a 24-hour continuous recording.  Blood pressure may be monitored, too, based on your spot-check readings.  The shades are left over from a morning at the eye doc.

Cosmonaut Capsule
Lots of tours were given by astronauts.  This Russian capsule is used for training. In addition to the tours themselves, you're expected to visit astronauts during free time in the schedule to get a feel for the "behind the scenes" job atmosphere.

Swimming Pool
Professional divers showed us around the NBL, or Neutral Bouyancy Lab.  If you look carefully in the picture you can see a full-size space station mockup under water.  The pool is actually longer than the picture shows -- more to the left and more to the right behind theobservation deck that blocked the upper right side of this picture.

Mission Control Room
We were lucky enough to make it into the viewing room of the Mission Control Center for the launch of STS-99 at 11:30 on Friday morning (those of us not redoing medical tests).

Procto Team & Tool
Nurse Mona and Dr. Hein with sixty centimeters of sigmoid proctoscopy fun!  Most people "bottomed out" at about 55-58 cm, but a few had to get the graduate version of 100-200 cm.  It's actually quite a technical marvel, if you're into such things.  Picture credit goes to ____ ____ (Jeff, what is your friend's name?)


Psych Testing

Sunday afternoon was a 5-6 hour block of time set aside for psychological testing. I think these are standard commerically available tests you can find in academic psych departments.  Enectali Figueroa-Feliciano wrote after his 2003 interview, “There is no one type of personality test. At the end they do not say "you are a type A" or "you are an ENTP". There is a LARGE number of questions you answer on Sunday and they use those as a baseline for your Psych interview which then generates a personality inventory of the candidate. Bottom line, be yourself. Don't try to guess what they want you to be. It's not so bad. They will try to figure out if you can be away from your family for long periods of time, if you have any phobias, or if you are a total jerk, if you can be part of a team, if you are confrontational, that sort of stuff. Basically, will you be a tolerable, workable person in orbit.”


The psychological interview (during the week, after the Sunday marathon testing) was for four hours, with two parts.  First, a historical look back at your life and experiences, to (I guess) piece together a picture of what's influenced your life.  Secondly, a more diagnostic part where there are a number of programmed questions, and questions keyed off answers you gave on the written exams.  These interviews have apparently knocked out 3 of the 120 people this cycle.  My debriefer stressed they're not judging the quality of your personhood, but rather your compatibility with life as an astronaut (on the ground and in space).

In my case, the interviewer was an older gentleman with an apprentice younger woman.  Mostly he asked questions, and he explained that she was there to learn how to do the interviews.  She took most of the notes.  There were two questions on my written exams that were snagged by the computer.  For a fill-in-the-blank question, "When I think of my Mom, I think about ______" I wrote simply "my Mom."  I guess I was suppose to write something with deeper meaning and they asked about it.  I explained that I couldn't think about anything that didn't sound wierd.  This rambled off into a discussion about what is normal or not on the  exams.  I expressed surprise that anybody would write something that makes them sound crazy.  He said, "I guess you're normal.  If you were not normal, it would seem totally normal to write something that's not normal."  Made sense to me, and we moved on.

I also got snagged by a true or false question, "I believe it is safer to stay in bed all day."  I answered true.  He asked me to explain.  I said, "Well, factually that's true.  I could twist an ankle or get in a car accident."  "So, do you stay in bed to hide from these things?"  "No, I don't.  That's not what the question asked.  It asked if it was safer, and I think that's technically true."   He said, "Oh. I guess you're one of those engineering types."  Not sure if that was a compliment or a critique!


He said they don't even grade the IQ exams, but rather save them for a base line in case someone goes into space or has an accident.  They would spend the time and money to score them at that time to obtain a baseline to medically compare you to.  These were fascinating tests, with questions such as, "On the road, there is a red car.  Why is the car red?"  Answers were things like 1) someone painted it red, 2) it reflects colored light, 3) the molecular atoms preferentially resonate with certain wavelengths, 4) etc.  In retrospect, I think all the answers could be true.  It's not that there is any one right answer, but rather the test probes how you think about things.  Very cool IMHO.

Years prior to the astronaut interview, I was planning to interview for a commerial airline pilot job with one of the big airlines. The pilot applicant industry has a huge gouge underground maintained by various pilot communities with pretty tight comraderie.  I'd be embarassed to tell you what level of gouge is available.  I recognized some of the questions, so I imagine these are also commercial test question banks used year to year. You can root around through your friend network and find most of the gouge, but I don't think it's worth your time.

Interviews

There was a lot of variance in how the panel interviews played out for each person.  The only common trend was the essay that had to be turned in just prior to your interview, and the opening prompt, typically "Tell us about your time in high school, and everything since then," and a total void of verbal and most non-verbal feedback.  It seemed to be free form, keyed from what you present.  The panel will silently listen, or interrupt to ask questions, or ask more questions if you finish before your time is up.  Some panel members were active, others were passive.  Somewhere they will ask a few technical questions just to probe the depth of your technical schooling or work. Enectali Figueroa-Feliciano (2003) added, “There IS a dress code for the interview: Business attire. Most people took that to mean a suit. I would have felt under-dressed without one. Most of the board members where wearing suits or coat and tie. The rest of the week is casual.”

The interview composition was not surprising: An HR person, selection office staff, 2 or 3 astronauts, senior astronaut (John Young at the time), and a couple other NASA personnel.  For most of the speakers, they were not professional interviewers -- I think this was an additional duty.  They were trying to do the best they could.  If you can help them do their job well, it would probably work out better for all!

I can think of three things I stumbled on in the interview.  When I started with my story, one of the astronauts interrupted and asked me a few questions about my family.  I think it was an honest attempt to get me to relax and just talk rather than present.  Somewhere early on, they asked me what sports I did in High School.  Truth is I was a geeky guy, and did swimming.  They said, "Well, that's nice, but how about any t-e-a-m sports?"  In my head I was thinking, "Really, after almost 2 decades out of High School, and after a decade of military crew (team) aircraft deployments around the world, I need to have a team High School sport?  Uggh..."  I'm sure my answer didn't satisfy them.

The second thing I did was not keep track of time.  I remember the first 5 minutes, thinking I'd talk for about another 15 minutes.  Instead, I looked up at the clock and had talked for nearly 50 minutes non-stop!  Wrong answer!!  I immediately wrapped up my speaking and asked them if they had any questions.  I think an interview would go much better if you left lots of time for back and forth.

I remember John Young asked me about the ISP (specific impulse) we were able to obtain from solid rocket motors I had worked on at the Air Force Academy. My brian was in a total frazzle by that time, and all I could remember was that we had obtained about 1/3 of the hydrogen-oxygen rocket performance.  Uggh... Stumble..  I could not remember a number. 

Medical

The medical community had the power to nix your selection, but otherwise didn't have a vote in rank-ordering the applicants.  Medical issues (including psychological and physical, I believe) took out about 25% of the people interviewed this time.  Heart murmurs.  Torn retinas.  Blood pressure.  Blood profiles.  Mostly unexpected stuff 'cause they would have already screened you out if they knew about it before hand.  I wonder if a person can get cheaper life insurance after making it through this?!

Other Input

Enectali Figueroa-Feliciano's impressions, during a September 2003 interview:

OK, about the week. You know, there is not that much to add than what Brian Mork put in his web page. That really is a good overview. Think of it as a week-long testing barrage, a one-hour interview, and a chance to meet some really awesome people. By Tuesday you feel like you've been there for a month. Then by Friday you are wondering how it went by so quickly.  The testing is just that. You show up, you get tested, you move on to the next one. The nurses and doctors are very nice and are not trying to judge you. So just enjoy the special treatment and go with it. Be mindful of the dietary restrictions: Can't eat this or that the day before the Procto, you  need to fast before the sonogram, you need to eat before the treadmill. The week gets tiring. One of the interviewees fell asleep in the Shuttle Motion Simulator's seat while we were getting our tour!  I would fall asleep  in the bus while getting shuttled between medical appointments. But man is it fun. You are there among astronauts, and get treated as one. Go talk to astronauts when you have time off (which is not very often). E-mail the ones that you'd really like to talk to the week before you go and try to set up appointments with them as soon as you get your schedule. When you go to 4S (the astronaut offices), go talk to Erlinda and the other astronaut schedulers. They know every one and will be able to get you talking to an astronaut very quickly. Ask them for a copy of the layout of the offices, that way you will be able to find out where so-and-so's office is quickly. Be yourself! That is all they are looking for.  Ask them questions about what it's like, what they miss, what they enjoy the most.

The interview starts with you nervously pacing an adjoining room, while waiting for Duane to come get you. When they are ready, Duane comes and picks up your essay. He goes and reads it outloud to the board, and then comes and gets you. They all rise when you come in the room, and sit down when you sit down. You don't shake hands with them (too much time). Then Bob Cabana says "You know how this goes. Why don't you tell us about yourself since highschool up to now." And off you go.  Don't memorize what you'll say, but it will help to make an outline before hand. Be yourself. They will ask questions. It was fairly interactive for me. They are very energetic, and I think many of them have not done this before. Think of what it is like for them to be on the other side of the process! The hour goes by much faster than you'd think. As soon as you come out you'll think of 100 things you could've said differently. Don't.

On Thursday you go to Pete's for a social event, which is part two of the interview. That was a lot of fun, you get to interact with the board members on an individual basis and talk to other astronauts. Try the cajun potatoes, they are so good! There's beer and soft drinks, and everyone stands around and talks. We got a speech from Bob Cabana, Kent Rominger, and John Young. It was a good send off. Friday, you will be running around trying to get last minute tests done, and won't have time to say goodbye to folks.

The other interviewees were the best part of the week. Wow. Any one of them would make great astronauts. The educator astronauts were great. I think It will be hard selecting just 2 or 3 from each interview group. The astronaut board members stressed over and over again that you should keep at it, that if you don't get in this time you might get in next time. I will take that advice to heart.

Derek “Deke” Green wrote about his November 2003 interview:

I just returned from week 5 interview.  It was probably one of the most tiring weeks I have experienced in a while....but it was FUN!  Our group was made up of 19 interviewees.  We had 2 pilots, seven MSs and 10 Educator -Astronauts (EA).  I was the token Air Force rep.  It was a very comfortable group of people.  In fact, we were told by several observers that our group was probably the most personable and close-knit groups they have seen this cycle.  I made relationships that will last a lifetime.  

The employees are great and you get a bunch of input from the other astronauts (by the way the 2000 class is READY for "New Guys"  smile ).  The folks at the Astronaut Selection Office are all very nice.  Duane, Teresa, Dawn and Holly are absolutely wonderful.  We really could not have gotten through it without them.  [editor note - your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to find out which of these Texans pack heat with a concealed weapons permit.  I found out during one shuttle ride over to the astronaut offices. :-) ]  They leave nothing to the imagination and they make sure you are fully informed on all aspects of the week.  For example, they know all the approved places to eat before your procto...and will make sure you do not eat whatever and whenever you are not supposed to....you can see what was important to me during the week.  Smile.  Once you get there you will see, it will be to you too!  If you can imagine the delicate ballet they have to choreograph to get all of us scheduled and completed for all of our "stuff", you know the task they have before them.  In addition, whenever one of us called they shuttled us to every location.  I don't think anybody ever arrived late!  Most importantly, they made it a point to keep each one of us calm before our interviews.

The reports you have heard about the medical staff is true.  They are all very professional and really very comforting.   Some are even hilarious!  Yes, even the procto staff (smile).   In short, Brian Mork's web site is still the definitive source of info except that they do not do the rescue sphere test any more.  Also, I was told by some of the astronauts there that we started earlier on Sunday (9:00) than they did and the psychological tests seem longer for our group.  

The educator astronaut program is very impressive.  As I said, in my group there were 10 Educator -Astronauts (EA).  All these people were fascinating and just plain good folks.  NASA has sunk major dollars into it and have allocated the resources to support this program.  The organization is definitely committed to making it work.  I was very impressed.  One more thing, I am more convinced after spending the week there that it is where I want to work!  When you consider all the factors it still beats working for a living.

Update from "d2d2fish" about the February 2009 Round 2 Interview:

I just returned from a second interview down at NASA, and I wanted to do my best to share with you the experiences I had.  There are confidentiality agreements in place to maintain the integrity of the process with impartial and unbiased looks at all of the candidates.  As such, there is a limited amount of information that I can pass along.  Mrs. Gomez and Mr. Ross have checked the content to ensure that I haven't divulged any proprietary information.

Most people arrive Saturday or Sunday, although I would recommend getting there as early as possible, because the fun starts relatively early on Sunday and you will have a very small window to eat if you don't get in by about 1200 (you start fasting at 1800).

From there you go to the orientation, where you are given your packet with a schedule of events (just like the one on the old ashos.com website), maps, rules for the week, medical tests overview, diet constraints for the tests, overview of the panel interview, etc...  

Monday starts the fun with blood draws, medical tests and psychological interviews.  The psychological interviews are pretty long, and all you can really do is be yourself.  If you have an imaginary friend, tell him to keep quiet :)

Medical tests, the interview, and a couple of evaluations are sprinkled throughout the next few days in what is a very busy schedule.  It's amazing to me how the staff there kept us (and our multitude of tests) straight.  The transportation alone is an incredible juggling act.  However, you still have plenty of time to hang out with your other interviewees.  Just like last time, I was humbled by them and their experiences - what an incredible group of people.

Tuesday night is a team exercise (which is a lot of fun), and Wednesday night is another social with astronauts and board members, just like during the first round of interviews.  Of course, shortly after that social, everyone is off to the ice cream parlor to stuff their bellies until midnight, at which time you have go cold turkey on solid food until Friday morning after your date with Mr. Colonoscopy.

Our group treated the colon prep as a bonding experience, and as silly as it sounds, it was probably one of the most memorable parts of the whole process.  Doing laxative shots out of NASA shot glasses, while we all sat around watching the Right Stuff and making fun of each other's frantic waddling to the bathrooms - it definitely made the process a lot more fun than solitary toilet worship.  Someday, when a couple of these people are walking on the moon, I'll have a  great story to tell the grandkids...

Friday starts with the colonoscopy and any other tests that were missed or added during the week, followed in the afternoon with a couple of tours, including a trip to the NBL, and Ellington Field to check out the NASA T-38s and other aircraft.

Other interview reports:

As you can see from my experience and others, the interview itself certainly is a good time.  If you have any specific questions, feel free to email.  You also might want to subscribe to the Astronaut Hopefuls (AsHos) mailing list, or the Facebook group

You may also be interested in the 2003 Astronaut Selection Study from the NASA Inspector General's office.  It contains a number of policy and procedural items that explain how astronauts will be selected and used.


This page is maintained by Brian Mork.  It was last modified December 2015. Suggestions for changes and comments are always welcome. The easiest way is to contact me via e-mail.

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