Two former interns of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are joining the agency’s newest class of astronaut candidates. Jessica Watkins and Loral O’Hara were among 12 selected for the coveted spots announced by the agency on Wednesday.
Adrian Ponce, manager of JPL’s Higher Education Programs, congratulated the new astronaut candidates and emphasized the value of the laboratory’s internship programs, which bring in about 1,000 students each year to work with researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
"JPL is recognized in the world as a place of innovation, and interns have the opportunity to operate alongside researchers, contribute to NASA missions and science, develop technology and participate in making new discoveries," said Ponce, adding that the internship experience serves as a pathway to careers at JPL, aerospace companies, tech giants – and now the NASA astronaut corps.
While there’s no single formula for becoming an astronaut, experience at a NASA center certainly helps. In fact, many NASA scientists and engineers already working in their dream jobs landing rovers on Mars or discovering planets beyond our solar system, still aspire to become astronauts.
Watkins, who as a graduate student participated in several internships at JPL that had her analyzing near-Earth asteroids and planning ground operations for the Mars Curiosity rover, says that becoming an astronaut was a childhood dream that just “never went away.” In a video interview during her internship with the Maximizing Student Potential, or MSP, program in 2014 she talked about how she saw her experiences at JPL as a key step to fulfilling her goal.
“When you walk away from having an internship at JPL, I think you just have a broader perspective on what’s possible and what’s feasible,” said Watkins, who in 2016 participated in another program from JPL’s Education Office, an intensive, one-week mission formulation program called Planetary Science Summer Seminar. “I think you set a new standard for yourself just by being around people who have set the standard really high for themselves. You learn to appreciate the possibilities and the things that you really are capable of achieving.”
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