© 2000-2015 by Brian Mork
When I was about 9 years old, I found a large balsa wood and
silk model airplane in
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
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
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.
In preparation for the 2000 interview, I decided to take on a
certain "team building
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
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
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.
Risk assessment was interesting. Fighting in military combat gives 1:20000. Flying in space gives 1:300. Being an astronaut disqualifies you from most private life insurance.
New civilian astronauts earn GS-11 through GS-14 wages based on experience. Check this payscale if you think you'll get rich.
A 5-6 year delay before first flight points toward long careers, not brief interludes of excitement.
They're looking for more than engineers or operators (who Charlie Precourt, Chief of Astronaut Office, described as "making decisions you can't take back"). They want people who can be part of a crew that "makes irrevocable decisions work".
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.
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.
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.”
In my case, the interviewer was an older
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!
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.
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?!
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
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
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.