Get advice from scientists, engineers and educators about what it takes to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and how to get a foot in the door.
In 1975, 10-year-old Nagin Cox’s home life was unraveling. It was a time when Cox grew up hearing that girls were “worthless” and thought only about making it to age 18 so she could be free.
“I remember looking up at the stars and thinking, ‘I’m going to live and get through this,” Cox, now a spacecraft systems engineer for Mars 2020 recalls. “I need to set a goal. I need something so meaningful it will help me get through the next eight years.'”
That goal revealed itself when she was 14, a curly-haired Indian girl fascinated by “Star Trek” and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” She wanted to explore the universe. And no, she didn't want to be an astronaut.
“If you really want to go where someone has never been, you want to be with the robots. They truly explore first,” she says. “There was one place that did that consistently and that was NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”
She just needed to figure out how.
Yesterday, NASA announced that it will open the application process to select its next class of astronauts on December 14. That news has gotten a lot of people very excited, including some of the best engineers and scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Most people don't think of JPL when they think of astronauts, but everywhere astronauts have been, JPL has sent spacecraft ahead of time. That was true for astronauts in Earth orbit and walking on the moon, and will continue to be true when humans visit a near-Earth asteroid and eventually Mars. But it's not just the idea of sending robots to explore new places in preparation for human visits that is exciting. Some of these scientists and engineers want to be astronauts too!
Maybe you've been following the exploration of Mars by the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, or maybe you've been watching as we've discovered more and more near-Earth asteroids. Whatever your inspiration has been, you know you want to become an astronaut.
So how do you get there, and what can you do to make it possible?
Let's start with the basic requirements:
- Bachelor's degree in a STEM field
- Three years of related professional experience
- Pass the NASA astronaut physical
Not every STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degree will qualify you to be an astronaut. NASA is looking for people with a degree in engineering, biological science, physical science (like physics, chemistry or geology) or mathematics. If you're in high school, middle school or even elementary school, now is a great time to explore all of these fields of study to help you better understand the ones you like most, the ones for which you might have a natural talent, and even the ones you don't find as interesting.
How do you explore these fields?
If you have the ability to choose your elective classes, take the challenging math, science and computer programming courses. This will help you to learn the fundamentals of science and math. If your school doesn't offer those classes, look online. There are many free online courses covering a wide range of math, science and programming topics.
What else can you do?
- Join a school or community math, science, engineering or robotics club. If there are none in your school or community, start one!
- Participate in science and engineering fairs. (There is a great "how to" video series to help you develop your project here.)
- Attend maker fairs and develop the skills to design solutions to a variety of problems.
- Apply for an internship at JPL or NASA. You can apply for opportunities as early as the spring of your senior year in high school when you have been accepted to a college or university as a STEM major.
These are some of the steps you can take to better prepare yourself as you enter college. They just happen to be some of the same types of things many JPL scientists and engineers did before starting their college careers that led them to a job with NASA.
- Five Myths About Becoming an Astronaut
- NASA Astronauts Website
- How to Apply to be an Astronaut
- USA Jobs website - Job posting and application will be available Dec. 14, 2015