Recruiting the right stuff

It’s something you either have, or you don’t. The “right stuff”, according to author Tom Wolfe, is the material that astronauts are made of.

Wolfe’s 1979 book of the same name, later made into an Oscar-winning movie, traces the early days of the US space programme and the race to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon.

There is no room for hotheads in a capsule floating in the vacuum of space

Since those heady days, being an astronaut has regularly topped lists of the ultimate dream jobs – the kind of thing to make a schoolboy’s eyes pop in wonder.

Boldly going where no man has gone before is undeniably glamorous and exciting. But ultimately being an astronaut is a job and, like any job, it needs a selection process.

So how do you design a process to recruit someone for a job the very purpose of which is to go beyond the frontiers of any previous human experience?

The next giant leap

In the late 1990s I was asked to consult with NASA, the US space agency, on selecting their first generation of astronauts for long duration space flight.

marsReturn missions to Mars could take as long as three years according to current projectionsThese were the people who would be setting new records in space; initially on the soon-to-launch international space station and paving the way for journeys into deep space – to Mars and beyond.

Every NASA astronaut intake receives thousands of applications who are then whittled down through a paper selection process to about 100 potential candidates.

By this time the selection pool is little short of spectacular – all apparently physically perfect individuals, highly trained and educated, most with at least one PhD. Indeed, there is often little to distinguish between them.

Our challenge was to see which had the right stuff.

Space and astrophysics have always fascinated me. I grew up with the space race and in July 1969 I found myself on a visit to Cambridge, England, glued to the TV watching Neil Armstrong take his famous “one small step” on the moon.

A quarter century later, as a mid-career professor of psychology, the opportunity to consult on a new stage of the space program was too exciting to pass up.

The late 1990s, you may recall, was a time of optimism. This was NASA pre-budget cuts – motivated, ambitious, supported politically, and with an operating spacecraft in the form of the Space Shuttle.

It is a very different and much leaner organisation today. Currently it doesn’t even have a spacecraft capable of launching its own astronauts.

Our task was to come up with an assessment system for selecting astronauts that would take mankind on the next giant leap into the solar system.

Pioneering voyages

These missions, NASA acknowledged, required a different kind of candidate from those on the first short duration fights into space.

spacestationMissions into deep space require confinement in small spaces with limited human company
One influential book, Bold Endeavours, published around the same time noted that long duration space missions would resemble the pioneering sea voyages of centuries ago – those of Columbus, Magellan and the like.

Crews would be subject to prolonged isolation and confinement and, as distances from Earth grew, communication with home would become increasingly difficult. Radio signals between Earth and Mars, for example, can take anywhere between four and 24 minutes, depending on the orbital positions of the two planets.

For a would-be astronaut, being in peak physical condition would obviously be critical. But what would be the “right stuff” that would take these new pioneers to the next level?

oneyearLong duration space missions bring their own unique challengesBeing an astronaut, by its nature, pushes at the boundaries of current knowledge. As a recruiter you need candidates who are willing to take substantial risks, for example, but who aren’t hasty and reckless.

Astronauts must be motivated, focused, driven, but also strong team players – they must show leadership and followership, and know when to switch between the two. There is no room for hotheads in a capsule floating in the vacuum of space.

They must be able to cope with life-threatening situations, but also put up with long periods of monotony, living at close quarters with perhaps just two others for company.

With these and other considerations in mind we devised a framework of factors, ordered by importance, comprising what we judged to be “right stuff” for meeting the unknowns of long duration spaceflight.

The exact protocol remains confidential, but broadly speaking we aimed to assess the candidate’s ability to cope with the stresses and challenges of operating in a difficult, confined environment; to work with others, especially in close proximity; as well as general personality and social ties.

Like Olympic athletes, aspiring astronauts are focused, highly-competitive individuals, each of whom has invested years – often decades – of their lives in getting the job

Part of our focus on the latter, for example, looked at family ties. Would a candidate with an apparently thriving, stable family life also be one who could operate well in prolonged isolation? Likewise would someone without a family life, a social isolate, prove in fact to be a problem in the close confines of a spacecraft?

There is of course no right answer. Rather it becomes one element in assessing a broader profile to determine who indeed has “the right stuff”.

The process becomes all the more challenging, however, when the candidates concerned are the very peak of top performers.

Like Olympic athletes, aspiring astronauts are focused, highly-competitive individuals, each of whom has invested years – often decades – of their lives in getting the job. They know the tests are designed to weed out even the smallest problems and will not easily let slip to a psychologist any fault that might see them grounded.

Nonetheless, the interview framework we developed became part the NASA selection process – one that has given the agency a very low error rate in hiring decisions. For missions lasting years, venturing millions of kilometres from Earth, this is obviously critical.

Inspiring missions

My period of consultancy with NASA wound down some 15 years ago. In that time the priorities of the space programme have shifted countless times – missions to Mars and others have been discussed and debated; schedules revised and, usually, pushed back. Meanwhile costs continue to spiral, raising the hackles of politicians concerned with more Earthly worries, like re-election.

issNASA receives thousands of applications every year to join its astronaut programme

Nonetheless, space exploration continues to inspire and NASA continues to receive thousands of applications every year to join its astronaut programme. And we continue to learn more about the “right stuff” that will enable us to venture further from Earth and into deep space.

In August , for example, a crew of six began a year-long period of isolation living and working in the HI-SEAS simulated Mars colony on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. Meanwhile, 400 kilometers up, US astronaut Scott Kelly is currently mid-way through a 342-day stint on the international space station – the longest-ever stay by a US astronaut.

The essence of any kind of exploration – whether it be into space, dense jungles, or to the bottom of the deepest oceans – is that it the further we travel into the unknown, the greater we stretch ourselves and the more we learn about what we are capable of.

It is often said of the Apollo moon missions, for example, that we travelled to the moon but discovered the Earth. In other words, that by travelling far from our home gave us the perspective for the first time to see that home for what it is – a small and fragile blue dot.

Humans will one day travel beyond the moon, millions of kilometres further into space, to explore new planets, asteroids and other celestial bodies; but to get there we will first discover a lot more about our own capabilities here on Earth.

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