This job requires having really the right stuff

For the third time since 2009, NASA is holding an online casting call for future astronauts.

“We’re on track, I think, to have a record number of applications this time,” said Anne Roemer, NASA manager for astronaut selection.

Through Feb. 18, NASA is accepting applications for its 2016 class of astronaut candidates. From the more than 6,000 applications it is expecting to receive, the agency will choose eight to 14 candidates, making one of the toughest jobs there is one of the toughest to get. It’s not just having the right stuff today, but having the really right stuff.

Astronaut Nick Hague

Karina Frayter | CNBC
Astronaut Nick Hague

“To start out, for basic qualifications we’re looking for a degree in the right field, of science, math, or engineering,” said Roemer. “Beyond that degree we require that folks, candidates, have a minimum of three years of professional experience in their field. After that it gets a lot tougher.”

It gets tougher because NASA looks for a variety of other crucial qualities in its candidates, like the ability to lead and the ability to follow. Working well in a team is critical to being an astronaut. Having experience in extreme situations including combat or expeditions in harsh environments is also a plus.

“You know being an astronaut is a lot of hands-on activities, said Roemer. “We see a lot of people that apply that have experience working in extreme environments, where they’re making real-time decisions that can impact life and death. Life and death choices, those types of things.”

Forty-year-old Tyler “Nick” Hague looks like he was born to be an astronaut. Tall, blonde and fit, he applied three times before he was accepted to the program in 2013. A graduate of the Air Force Academy with a master of science in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from MIT, the Kansas native recalls his surprise at finally being selected.

Astronaut Nick Hague at the International Space Station mockup and training facility.

Karina Frayter | CNBC
Astronaut Nick Hague at the International Space Station mockup and training facility.

“After going through two rounds of interviews, I felt during each interview … like I was the least qualified person at the table,” said Hague. “You know I felt like I could do the job, but they (the other candidates) were just spectacular people.”

Hague was chosen along with seven other candidates. Five of them, including Hague, are pilots, and Hague is 1 of 6 who are members of the military. The group also includes two doctors.

Each class of candidates may have a slightly different makeup. NASA does not recruit new candidates on a specific schedule. Its decision to increase the pool of available astronauts depends on the missions it has planned and any attrition that happens within the current workforce.

Once selected, the astronaut candidates go through a comprehensive two-year training program in Houston to prepare them for the 16-hour workdays that lie ahead once they head into space. Those workdays are focused on conducting experiments, maintaining the astronauts physical well-being and maintaining the vehicle.

“You go through robotic arm training to learn to learn how manipulate, how to work the robotic arm on the station,” said Hague, who has been training to fly on the International Space Station or ISS.

“You learn all about the station systems, which I felt that my engineering background helped me out a bit in terms of understanding how things work, why things work and how to fix them if they break. There is also EVA (extra vehicular activity) training, so doing spacewalk training, learning how to work inside a spacesuit. It’s not only a very physical task that you need to train for but it’s also a mentally challenging task because you have to maintain such focus for such a long period of time.”

CNBC's Mary Thompson training for a virtual spacewalk.

Karina Frayter | CNBC
CNBC’s Mary Thompson training for a virtual spacewalk.

In addition, because he is training to fly on the ISS, Hague had to learn a new language, which proved to the one of the biggest hurdles for the father of two.

“Learning Russian at the age of 40 is a challenge, and it is a challenge to this day,” he said.

Before they are accepted into the program, candidates must also pass a medical screening. After, they are required to maintain a high level of fitness, as once they head into space they are required to do two hours of physical activity each day, usually split between an hour of aerobic and anaerobic exercise.

Given they will be exercising in zero gravity, they will also learn how to use specially designed exercise machines during the training program. The treadmill they use in space requires they wear a vest that connects to bungee cords that hold the astronaut in place while they run. They will strap themselves onto an exercise bike, and lifting weights, which is so critical to maintaining an astronaut’s bone density, is done on a machines that uses resistance to mimic the effort of lifting free weights on earth.

All of this is done to prepare the astronauts for a mission that may be another three to five years away, once they finish the training program.

“When we were going through the interview process they made it very clear that if you were selected, you may wait quite a while to fly,” said Hague. “So, it is a long time, but a lot of that is time that you’re going to have spend training to fly anyway. There’s two years of initial training, there’s two years of, of once you’re assigned to a flight, you’ve got two years of flight specific training.”

A worker at NASA Johnson Space Center’s System Engineering Simulator.

Karina Frayter | CNBC
A worker at NASA Johnson Space Center’s System Engineering Simulator.

While they wait for their flight assignments, Hague and his fellow candidates will support NASA’s current missions from the ground

“I look at the flight as a very small piece of the job that you’re being hired to do,” he said. “So, in, in that regard, I’m here long term, and, and the flight, if it happens, and I’m fortunate enough, it’ll happen down the road, but there’s a lot of contribution that you can make in this job, to human exploration of space, without actually being on orbit.”

The payoff of this patience, training and intellectual firepower is anywhere from $66,000 to $140,000 a year, depending on the astronaut’s experience, according to NASA’s Roemer. It also means a job for the long term. NASA does not have any age limits on who can fly, as long as the astronaut is physically and mentally capable.

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