NASA’s newest astronauts talk about their journeys to becoming spacefarers

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Yesterday, NASA announced its newest class of astronauts: 10 new candidates who will train to fly to space with the agency over the next two years. The group included plenty of qualified individuals with backgrounds in the military, as well as some with more unique professions. One of the candidates was most recently a flight surgeon at SpaceX, while another has worked as a drilling engineer on remote rigs in the Arctic.

The Verge spoke briefly with three of the newest astronaut candidates to get a better understanding of their backgrounds and what inspired them to pursue becoming an astronaut. Learn more about the newest members of NASA who could fly to deep space one day.

These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Anil Menon

Anil is a medical doctor and lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force who worked as the first flight surgeon for SpaceX. He was also a flight surgeon for NASA and is a practicing emergency medicine doctor with experience as a first responder during natural disasters.

You have a really rich background in medical science. So did you always want to be a doctor? And did you ever think that your experience could translate to the space world one day?

Yeah, I wanted to be both. I had an early dream of being an astronaut. I saw this movie called The Dream is Alive at the Omni Theater in Minnesota. It was an IMAX movie, and there were astronauts in space — just enthralled by a job that could also entail adventure.

But I also got into medicine. I broke my arms in high school; my mom got hurt and wound up at the County Medical Center, and I wanted to be a doctor. It just helped move me to figure out a way to help people. I didn’t know how to make the paths converge, but I was inspired by some early astronauts. I knew there was one named Scott Parazynski, an ER doctor and an astronaut, and he inspired me to go into medicine and see how I could make that into space medicine.

Since then, I worked through school and then found myself working at NASA as a flight surgeon with 20 other doctors. So it wasn’t a big field, and it was hard to find. One job opened up at SpaceX, and I was lucky and fortunate to get that job. But it was just one job. What was really cool was to take that, and at SpaceX, to build a medical student rotation where students could get interested in space at that commercial partner and then to get residents and fellows. Over the past three years, I’ve now been able to work with hundreds of people who have had jobs of all sorts — paramedics, nurse practitioners — in commercial space supporting NASA. So now this is a huge field that I feel is at an inflection point and about to just really take off.

You also practiced wilderness medicine. I’d love to hear more about that. And do you feel like that helped to prepare you for space medicine eventually?

It’s medicine in a unique environment without all the resources at your standard ER. So I am an ER doctor, but I take wilderness medicine to Haiti or Nepal or the Mount Everest base camp. You have what you have right there. You take it to the space station or to [future] Moon missions. It’ll be a lot more limited than what we have on the ground. And so I think there’s a huge amount of overlap there and a huge need for development and research in these fields because the better we can get at that, the healthier we’ll be both off the Earth and on the ground.

I got deployed to Afghanistan and to take care of people in remote areas in 2009. I learned from just practicing medicine on the back of a helicopter, and it’s not too dissimilar from what I’ll be doing in the future spaceship. Though I think some of the learning that we have at NASA and space medicine translates back to those kind of military, Wounded Warrior rescue missions, translates back to wilderness medicine, maybe taking care of people via telemedicine and rural parts of America, Antarctica, or different countries. There’s a lot of cross-pollination.

Having worked on a SpaceX vehicle, would you want to fly on a SpaceX vehicle as an astronaut moving forward?

I would be happy to fly on any. But I would love to fly on a SpaceX vehicle as well. I know the people and the engineers who designed that vehicle, and I know how safe it is. I know how just incredibly well designed it is, and so I have the utmost confidence in them.

But as a NASA astronaut, I’d be open to any of the commercial partners because, like I said, they do such a good job of sharing that safety culture and knowledge with everybody. And it’s great that there’s choices. There’s so many different ways to get to space out there.

Jack Hathaway

Jack Hathaway is a commander in the US Navy with more than 2,500 hours of flight experience, piloting more than 30 different types of aircraft, according to NASA. He recently served as a subject matter expert for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

You have plenty of experience as a naval aviator. I’d love to know when you caught the bug to become a pilot and fly.

I mean, I can’t even tell you, I was so young. It’s probably seven or eight seconds after I was born, I was ready to become a pilot. Really, as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to do it. I took some flying lessons as a kid, and as I started to learn about the different types of flying jobs available, I just kind of matched with the Navy — like culture of the Navy, the flying that they do. It just kind of made sense to me. So that was kind of it for me once I figured out that that could be a possibility.

Did you know that you always wanted to go to space?

Going to space has been a dream since I was a little kid. Flying is definitely what I wanted to do, but the opportunity to go to space, also from a young age, was something that I was excited about. I used to watch the Shuttle, and I was like, “Man, you can fly to space and then fly back from space. That sounds like something that’s pretty cool.” So I’ve been excited about it. It’s kind of a budding environment. And it’s been in the back of my head since a kid.

When you moved forward with your career, did you always make those choices with the idea that maybe one day you could translate them into becoming an astronaut?

I got some great advice when I was a young officer in the Navy: Don’t pick your next job based on what you think other people will want you to do or what you think will be career-enhancing. Pick your next job based on what makes you happy and that it’s something that you want to do. So in some ways, I was always cognizant of the fact that the Naval Academy, jet pilot, and test pilot school — all those things were on a track to become an astronaut. For me, while I was cognizant of that fact, I also wanted to do all those things just in and of themselves at the time, too.

But I really never lost sight of the fact that becoming an astronaut someday would be pretty awesome.

You’ve also flown 39 combat missions. How would you describe that shaping your experience in terms of your piloting and how you think that might translate to being an astronaut someday?

Most naval aviators today that have been on deployment in the last five or 10 or 15 years have done some sort of combat mission in Afghanistan or over Iraq. So it’s pretty common in the F-18 community to find pilots that have flown combat missions. So I’m not sort of abnormal at all.

I would say that the Navy does a lot of training, and NASA does a lot of training. So in that sense, we’re very similar. The Navy does a full set of workups to get ready to go on a deployment. We do all sorts of training pipelines to develop pilots from junior guys that are just showing up, to learn how to fly by themselves, to fly with other aircraft, to fly with larger formations. We train ourselves through a robust process to be good at what we do since we’re trying to support the American taxpayer.

And I think that mindset translates really well to NASA because NASA does extensive training. All the details are worked out beforehand, so we’re as prepared as humanly possible to do the mission that we like to do, to handle emergencies that pop up, work together as a team. Because it’s not just about accomplishing a specific mission but doing it in the context of a large team, where we need lots of different people, different perspectives, different roles on the team to accomplish that mission.

I saw that you were aboard the USS Truman when you got the call about becoming an astronaut. Tell me what it was like to get that news while at sea?

I missed the call because we didn’t have a lot of connectivity. So I ended up getting an email from the chief of the astronaut office that said, “Hey, man, you missed a phone call. Please give me a call.” So I furiously tried to get an outside line. It took me a few minutes, but I finally got through.

I will say that it was awesome to get that phone call out at sea, surrounded by my second family. Those men and women, both the officers and enlisted, they’re like brothers and sisters to me. They were all so excited for me.

Deniz Burnham

Deniz Burnham is a drilling engineer based in Alaska, as well as a lieutenant in the US Navy. She continues to serve in the Navy Reserves and has spent the last decade working in the energy sector, with experience living on oil rigs in the Arctic.

I read that you were part of a military family growing up and that you moved around a lot as a kid. Where all did you live?

Both my parents were actually in the military, and so I was born at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. And my father got orders to Nebraska shortly after I was born. So I’ve lived in Turkey, Nebraska, Florida, Georgia, California. And that was just childhood moving around. And of course, because I work in oil and gas, that’s kind of taken all the rest of my moving around. So I’ve lived in Alaska, Canada, Ohio, Wyoming, Texas, etc.

So you’ve been all over. Have you enjoyed exploring the world that way?

Oh, absolutely. From a young age, it forces you to be flexible, right? It makes you learn how to adapt. You have to go to new schools, sometimes in the middle of the year. So it’s kind of up to you to try and make friends, play sports.

When did your interest in space begin? Was that an early dream, or did it come later?

It was actually an early dream. My grandfather, he was born in 1927. So he had a big love of two things: he loved bicycles and telescopes. And he shared his love of telescopes with me, thankfully. So he liked amateur astronomy and getting to see Mars and Saturn’s rings just in your own backyard. It really just touched my heart differently. We would have these really beautiful deep conversations, just about space. And I also was a NASA intern as well, so I’ve always kind of had that desire.

Tell me about getting into engineering, specifically in the energy sector. What prompted you to pursue that field?

I studied chemical engineering at UCSD. And my first job after college was actually in the Arctic, on the rigs up there as a field engineer. And it was very challenging, very fast-paced. You have to make these real-time decisions that can be very critical. So I’m very grateful for the experiences that I had, working in those fast-paced operational environments because that’s ultimately what I feel like I can apply towards just furthering NASA’s mission.

These oil rigs sound like very remote places. I’m curious what that kind of lifestyle was like? And do you think that’s a good way to prep for going into space someday?

They are definitely very remote locations in extreme climates. It’s one of the things I’ll never forget, first stepping foot off the plane, landing in the Arctic — never seen that type of weather before. Just seeing the rig for the first time, too — very complicated systems. You’re working in small crews. Everybody has to live together. So I think all these things are very applicable towards the kind of skill set that teaches you how to be adaptable, focus on teamwork, putting the team before yourself.

But it also goes to show, too, as you hear [the astronauts’] different stories, that there’s no one set path. And I hope that inspires people to follow what they’re passionate about and stay the course.

Where were you when you got the phone call from NASA?

I do my navy drills in Alameda in Northern California. And so I had to go for that drill weekend for my Navy Reserve commitments. And I was actually at my mom’s house. It was pretty early on the West Coast. Working in oil and gas, getting a call from a Houston area code, it’s not abnormal for me. So I just kind of look at it, and I’m thinking, “Well, maybe.” But at the same time, it could be anybody just from work.

So when I heard the chief astronaut officers’ voice, I was holding my breath. And then, of course, he asked, “Hey, are you still interested in working with us at NASA?” Instantly, I was in tears.

Well, I have to ask this question, and I’m sure you’re going to get it a lot. When you were selected and they said your profession was a drilling engineer, obviously, people immediately thought of the oil drillers from Armageddon. So I’m curious, since you have drilling experience: do you think it’s easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts or to train astronauts to be drillers?

Well, you know what, the beauty of it is now they get to test the theory, right? I want to go with, “Hey, you know what, it’s okay to train an oil driller to be an astronaut.”

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