“I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” -Ed White, at the end of his first spacewalk

A great many of us had dreams of becoming an astronaut when we were younger, and many of us still have that dream today. But turning that dream into reality involves a lot of choices, a lot of hard work, a lot of trade-offs and a lot of luck. Having “the right stuff” is no guarantee that you’ll get there, but if you’re willing to put in the work, there’s plenty you can do to maximize your chances.

Teamwork is essential to future astronauts, as astronaut candidates Tyler N. (Nick) Hague, Andrew R. Morgan and Nicole A. Mann look over a chart that will help sustain them for three days in the wilderness. Image credit: NASA.

Teamwork is essential to future astronauts, as astronaut candidates Tyler N. (Nick) Hague, Andrew R. Morgan and Nicole A. Mann look over a chart that will help sustain them for three days in the wilderness. Image credit: NASA.

Becoming an astrophysicist — or a scientist of any type — is actually a lot easier, but involves many of the same skills. But with both choices, you absolutely have to love it. That fire has to be alive inside of you with each and every day that passes. Because if it goes out, you’re on the wrong path, and no reward at the end of the race is going to be worth the slog of a journey if you don’t enjoy it.

Collecting data from telescopes is just one small part of the work done by the astrophysics community. Image credit: NASA, of the control room at Table Mountain Observatory.

Collecting data from telescopes is just one small part of the work done by the astrophysics community. Image credit: NASA, of the control room at Table Mountain Observatory.

When you Ask Ethan for life advice, you’ll get the answer you were hoping for, but you’ll also get a whole lot more, like it or not.

Comments

  1. #1 ED BAILEY
    West Virginia
    December 10, 2016

    I fell in love with astronomy at about 8 years of age. My parents bought me a dept. store refractor and I learned all the bright constellations and saw all the planets out to Saturn. (recently saw Uranus) I had the love, but I didn’t understand advanced math, like higher algebra and trig, and calculus.So I didn’t get a degree, I used my hands to make a living. I’m disabled now and really back into astronomy, but I don’t have the funds to go out and get a great scope. I guess I said all of that to say you can have all the drive and love you want, but some people aren’t as smart as others.. I guess I could’ve stayed into astronomy more as I was working through my life, and maybe I could have a apo refractor now. But a 5 inch reflector is going to have to do.I enjoy reading the posts and articles about astronomy on FB and the internet, heck i’ve even read some articles about particle physics, that leave the math out. Inner space to outer space, that’s some fascinating stuff!

  2. #2 CFT
    December 10, 2016

    Yeah, I thought it would be cool to be an astronaut too. Until I saw what happens in explosive decompression to living tissue… overexposure to radiation…and saw what happened to the Apollo 1 astronauts…and the bits and pieces of the space shuttle astronauts…and even poor Sputnik who everyone thought was so cute …despite the fact he was basically sent up to die just for the Russians to claim bragging rights. At present, putting a person into space is just an overly romanticized, extremely expensive, and stupid way to get killed, kind of like like bungee jumping, it serves no real useful purpose except for silly people to do something dangerous to feel brave about.
    .
    Send a machine instead. It’s far far less expensive and wasteful, they don’t breath, don’t eat, don’t have to waste time on survival trust exercises, or smell recycled farts and BO for weeks at a time (read up on this, it isn’t pleasant), do not require huge amounts of mass just to function or be protected from radiation, can launch at much higher g’s far more efficiently without getting squished, and most importantly, can be replaced and don’t die a horrible death if exposed to the vacuum of space.
    .
    Until something far better than rockets come along to get out of a gravity well with at a far lower cost, humanity should stay home and let the unmanned probes do the heavy lifting.
    The one last thing Ethan really should have mentioned is the job prospects. We already have far more astronauts than we need (what manned space program??? You’d have a better chance if you were Russian), and the chances of becoming one are significantly less than being an NBA basketball player, which is not a very likely probability for a successful career choice.

  3. #3 Wow
    December 10, 2016

    “Until I saw what happens in explosive decompression to living tissue”

    That is almost certainly a hollywood trope, not really much to do with reality.

  4. #4 Narad
    December 10, 2016

    That is almost certainly a hollywood trope

    Almost?

  5. #5 Sinisa Lazarek
    December 11, 2016

    @cft

    then I suppose you don’t fly in airplanes, because of fear of explosive decompression. or in a car, cause you must have seen what happens with living tissue in a head on collision, right. how about home fire? that sucks too, no? how is that different from some other fire incident?

    the ammount of crap you’re tossing around is astounding.

  6. #6 Tomas Ahl
    Sweden
    December 11, 2016

    @CFT

    …and even poor Sputnik who everyone thought was so cute …despite the fact he was basically sent up to die just for the Russians to claim bragging rights.

    ITYM Laika, the female dog that the Russians sent into space in Sputnik 2 in late 1957.

  7. #7 Wow
    December 11, 2016

    “” That is almost certainly a hollywood trope”

    Almost?””

    Well, we haven’t done much testing of live creatures, let alone hominids, so it could be somewhat like what CFT has seen “dramatised”.

    Note for the”But you’re CLOSED MINDED” idiots: you can keep an open mind and STILL be disagreeing with the validity of a claim. And remember, if YOU are being dogmatic and closed to the idea there is no god/spirit science/flat earth reality/young earth, this will be because positive declarative language is simpler and shorter than nuanced language, and why should your opposite hamstring themselves with caveats when you’re totally not willing to take the effort yourself.

  8. #8 CFT
    December 11, 2016

    If you have ever been in chemistry or physics class and played around with vacuum chambers you would know what happens to water in a vacuum. It boils. Very quickly. What do you think would happen to you if the blood in your body started to boil? Balloons also pop very quickly in a vacuum (as would the very cells of your body, and your eyeballs), and humans have trouble with even mild sudden decompression, it’s called ‘the bends’ or DCS (decompression sickness), very very nasty stuff, easily fatal with nowhere close to being in a complete vacuum. I’ll give you one guess why the call it ‘the bends’. Read a book sometime on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the first place the bends were observed while building the underwater supports for the pylons. Someone in a higher pressure region goes through an airlock into a lower pressure region (like with submarines surfacing quickly) and the dissolved gas in their capillaries expands coming out of a liquid (blood) and basically, like the balloon…pop.
    .
    You call me close minded? For knowing what actually happens in decompression? Good grief wow, ok. Tell you what, do the math, or reasearch. Want to contest my ‘pessimistic’ assessment of astronaut as a career? What are the actual chances of being an astronaut anyway?
    .
    ” There have been 257 NASA astronauts over the years and an applicant has a 0.6% chance of being selected. Of those non-pilots selected out of civilian life 38.9% had completed a Masters degree and 38.3% had a PhD. Of the pilots selected 52% had a Master’s and 43% had only a Bachelor’s.”
    .
    Now, how about that NBA player?

    — NCAA senior players drafted by an NBA team: Less than one in 75, or 1.3 percent. — High school senior players eventually drafted by an NBA team: About three in 10,000, or 0.03 percent. That’s roughly the chance of getting four of a kind in the first round of draw poker.”
    Well shucks. Lookie that.
    .
    Wow, please, spare me the anti science this yadda yadda flat earth that yadda yadda bullshit. Whenever you change the subject in a conversation into an ad hominem, it means you are losing an argument.

  9. #9 Wow
    December 11, 2016

    “If you have ever been in chemistry or physics class and played around with vacuum chambers you would know what happens to water in a vacuum. It boils.”

    And if you had ever considered actual space, the stuff outside earths’ atmosphere, you know it’s cold. Freezing cold. Like hundreds of degrees below freezing cold.

    And what is the opposite of boiling?

    FFS, moron, Ethan recently had a recap on the effects.

    Now, consider this: are you entirely water? No. Ergo, irrelevant fact that “water boils in a vacuum!”, even if it HAD been the case.

  10. #10 Craig Thomas
    December 11, 2016

    There is very little heat transfer in a vaccum, so the immediate effect on the outer cells of a sudden drop in pressure is that they will boil.
    As the outermost parts of the body boil off, the rest of the body becomes gradually in turn exposed to the sudden drop in pressure and boils away too.
    Only once the temperature drops to below -50 does the vapor and decompressed bits of body turn solid.

  11. #11 CFT
    December 11, 2016

    Wow, I can not believe you said that. Have you even taken basic chemistry? Do you understand what boiling even means? Boiling does not mean ‘hot’. It is associated with being hot because when we boil water in the kitchen the surrounding air pressure determines the temperature required at which the water will boil at roughly 100C, depending on your altitude. Yes, water can boil even in the cold vacuum of space, as it’s related to the surrounding pressure, or lack thereof. The lower the pressure, the lower the temperature water will boil at.
    .
    Here’s a little video. See for yourself. The other little nasty truth about exposure to vacuum for a human would be the literal shit storm you would experience, as the pressure in your bowels would be far greater than your surroundings…your sphincter simply wouldn’t be able to hold things in any more than your diaphragm could hold the air in your lungs…which by the way would be having the alveoli blown apart as the gasses expanded. .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glLPMXq6yc0
    .
    It’s about the most painful way you could possibly die in fifteen seconds. Please note carefully, you would not have to be exposed to a vacuum for the entire fifteen seconds for the damage to be fatal. If you REALLY want the gory details:
    .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjkrqMm52JI
    .
    And that is why humans and outer space don’t mix.

  12. #12 Sinisa Lazarek
    December 12, 2016

    Number of astronauts in the world… more than 500

    Number of astronauts that died from decompression… 3 .. in ’71 on Soyuz 11.. but sadly, only because they didn’t wear pressure suits, they basically re-entered earth in pijamas and capsule pressure failed.

    And when talking about decompression illness and basically the effects of pressure, gasses and human body, there are people on this board that are scuba divers.

  13. #13 CFT
    December 13, 2016

    @Sinisa Lazarek,

    “And when talking about decompression illness and basically the effects of pressure, gasses and human body, there are people on this board that are scuba divers.”
    ok, besides the condescending non-sequitur, so what…?
    .
    Not really sure what you are commenting on in regards to decompression. My information was accurate. You evidently foster some nostalgic/romanticized notions about the present day demand and utility of astronauts. Looking at the evidence, I do not. If you can point to some evidence of a growing need for astronauts, besides wishing it to be so, please do. As I was responding to Wow and not you, why would you even throw your two cents of snark in when you couldn’t even find the time to mention to Wow that pressure determines a boiling temperature? If you wish to carry water for Wow and play tag team insult games, knock yourself out.
    As for your number of Astronauts in the world argument…Please just no. That 536 number is not per year , or per decade, but going on over the last 70+ years en toto since the beginning of the space race, which makes an NBA basketball career more probable in comparison ). As for becoming a cosmonaut, you have zero prospects unless 1.) you are Russian(or member of the former Soviet Union), 2.)you belong to the correct political party and have a well connected sponsor. 3.)you served in the military with exemplary distinction. They may take on passengers as freight, but that does not in any way make them cosmonauts, just a living payload, and they will very bluntly tell you so. Simply going into space does NOT make you an astro/cosmo-naut, any more than riding as a passenger on a plane makes you an aircraft pilot. Yuri Gagarin would have certainly laughed his ass off if you said otherwise. I do give the Russians credit, at least they actually HAVE a manned space program. We (the United States) don’t anymore. Bumming a ride from the Russians does not constitute a manned space program, and they know it, and say as much. They also know it makes the United States look inept, which they certainly don’t mind pointing either.

  14. #14 Wow
    December 13, 2016

    “My information was accurate. ”

    But your information was “I saw what happens in explosive decompression to living tissue”. Which has no information other than you’ve seen it. No “It”.

    Ironic given you’ve gone “What you said was a nonsequitur”, which I agree with: it didn’t have a conclusion, merely an expression of being a scuba diver (by inference). Ironic because you just did the same thing in the very next sentence you uttered.

  15. #15 Wow
    December 13, 2016

    “As for becoming a cosmonaut, you have zero prospects unless 1.) you are Russian”

    Look up tautology.

    Unless you merely used the russian term for astronaut, in which case it was wrong. The ESA has astronauts, almost none of them russian.

  16. #16 CFT
    December 13, 2016

    Wow,
    Russians are proud of their country, their culture, their language, and their accomplishments, warts and all, unlike much of the Western world which at present which seems to enjoy self loathing and safe spaces more than knowing about actual history.
    .
    ‘Cosmonaut’ is a term the Russians created with the sole intent of distinguishing their stolen German space program from the United State’s stolen German space program. If it wasn’t for absolved Nazi rocket scientists, Sputnik would never have orbited the earth and Neil Armstrong would never have walked on the moon. If you call a Russian cosmonaut an ‘astronaut’, they will correct you. Belabor the point and they might perform a gravity check with your face and the floor. As to your ESA comment, last time I checked, the ESA’s manned space program consists largely of hitchhiking rides as passengers off countries that actually do have manned space programs, which no longer includes the United States.
    .
    Instead of attempting to insult your way out of a paper bag, study gas pressure instead. If you wish to experiment with tissue in a vacuum, spare the inhumane torture of primates and use a piece of raw steak and a few drops of your own blood in a petri dish instead, you will catch on very quickly. Please be sure you have proper supervision when you try this.

  17. #17 Wow
    December 13, 2016

    “December 13, 2016

    Wow,

    [goes on rambling nonseqitur about how russians are proud when pointed out that cosmonaut is the same as astronaut]”

    Care to stop avoiding for once?

  18. #18 Wow
    December 13, 2016

    IRONY ALERT!

    Instead of attempting to insult your way out of a paper bag,…

  19. #19 Wow
    December 13, 2016

    http://www.geoffreylandis.com/vacuum.html

    A frequently asked question is: how realistic is the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where astronaut Bowman makes a space-walk without a helmet? How long could a human survive if exposed to vacuum? Would you explode? Would you survive? How long would you remain conscious?

    The quick answers to these questions are: Clarke got it about right in 2001. You would survive about a ninety seconds, you wouldn’t explode, you would remain conscious for about ten seconds.

  20. #20 Narad
    December 13, 2016

    ‘Cosmonaut’ is a term the Russians created with the sole intent of distinguishing their stolen German space program from the United State’s stolen German space program.

    I for one impressed at CFT’s ability to continually emit strings of words that basically all require the annotation “[citation needed].”

  21. #21 Wow
    December 13, 2016
  22. #22 Wow
    December 13, 2016

    Google search:

    The distinction is that they are titles awarded by different space agencies. They both mean essentially the same thing and they both come from Greek. Cosmonaut is used by the Russian Space Agency. Astronaut is used by NASA, ESA, CSA, and JAXA.
    What’s the difference between an astronaut and a cosmonaut? – Quora

  23. #23 eric
    December 13, 2016

    Ethan:

    But if you find yourself unhappy, unfulfilled and depressed at the thought of going back to another day of work you don’t care about, don’t be afraid to take a step back and try something new.

    I would add to that that the day-to-day life of most scientists is typically very mundane. Its not all that exciting. There are of course exceptions, but I wouldn’t go into science expecting that you’re going to spend 8-6 collecting blood samples from sedated tigers in the jungle or observing the first ever images of flowing water on Mars. The special uniqueness of a scientific career comes as milestones, when you look back at several months (or years) of work and say, holy crap, I just discovered something nobody in the history of humanity has ever known. I just contributed to the sum total of human knowledge. That is a very good feeling. But its not an every day feeling.

    Having said that, one of the many good things about going into science is that your degree is highly valued outside of academia too. We’re respected as good general problem solvers by just about every other field. And pretty much any technical PhD implies the person holding it can carry through on a multi-year difficult and complex project, usually requiring teamwork, without quitting. Because that’s what you just did to earn it. People outside of science value that capability.

    So, while I would say ‘don’t go into science for the glamour – there isn’t much on a daily basis.’ I would also say ‘don’t worry about whether you’re wasting years getting a degree you won’t use’. That probably won’t be the case. You can never see the inside of a lab again after you graduate, but your PhD in science will still probably open a lot of doors for you.

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