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12/19/2001
06:18 AM
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What Sticks: Send Yourself To Space

Does your IT background prepare you for a career as an astronaut?

The criteria for being an astronaut have loosened up. In the early days, NASA solely recruited white male fighter pilots; they looked for guys who had the intestinal fortitude to withstand very high G forces, could handle exacting repetitive tasks, and didn't mind being strapped on top of a vast explosive device and shot into the stratosphere like a human cannonball. Now NASA takes mission specialists and scientists of both genders.

Since some of those qualifications sound remarkably like what you endure in daily office politics, you may be tempted to sign up immediately for astronaut courses at Star City. They offer several useful subjects: working in weightlessness during flight in a zero-G aircraft, training in a neutral buoyancy camp, experiencing a Soyuz-type simulator, and testing your tolerance of spaceflight factors (including motion sickness, lift-off, and reentry G's) by experiencing centrifuge and body balance-testing facilities.

Perhaps you wonder about the day-to-day job conditions; after all, you wouldn't take a new job on earth without checking out the neighborhood. NASA offers a number of informative Web sites explaining the vagaries of daily life, such as how one brushes one's teeth and uses a toilet.

One point of good news is that food in space has improved from the early days of freeze-dried pap; the extended astronaut menu includes all sorts of engineered nutritional drinks in peppy Kool-Aid flavors. (However, one astronaut candidate did tip me off that spin-off uses have been found for Tang, that fundamental building block of our space program. Put the powdered Tang in your dishwasher in place of soap, and run it through a couple of cycles. It cleans the magnesium deposits right up--although my informant commented that he has "no idea what it does to your insides.")

Going Out To Launch
Tortillas have been a shuttle-mission favorite for the past 15 years, as they handle well in micro gravity and don't disintegrate into crumbs that gunk up the works. Commercially packaged tortillas are prone to mold, so NASA has developed a supertortilla, stabilized for extended missions on the shuttle by being somewhat dehydrated and packed in anaerobic packaging. (Mold remains a concern for extended flights, as certain varieties tend to eat away at the metal and plastic components. But perhaps citizens can be encouraged to donate the contents of their refrigerators to the astrobiology program, where particularly fecund Tupperware colonies can be tested for cosmic radiation-induced mutations.)

Being an astronaut is sort of the geek equivalent of being a rock star. Astronauts are expected to be team players and highly skilled generalists, with just the right amount of individuality and self-reliance to be effective crewmembers. You need three years of relevant experience or a Ph.D in a hard science field to qualify for the mission specialist slots.

Get in shape--although some would say that there's still hope for couch potatoes. Don't get a radial keratomy to improve your eyesight, as the effect under shifting pressure is unknown.

Practice public speaking, and be conformist in appearance and actions. Because NASA is funded by Congress, and Congress is motivated by public opinion, NASA is driven by public relations. They look for squeaky-clean overachievers who play well with others and who can pass a security clearance. Being a pilot and learning how to scuba dive will definitely improve your prospects.

You may also have to fill out a standard federal employment form, which asks if you are available to travel. (I recommend you say yes.)

A Career That Takes Off
Ostensibly, you just have to be below 6'4", have resting blood pressure of 140/90, and have some skill desired by NASA (like oceanography) so you can study life under extreme environments (like suburbia). Write to: NASA Johnson Space Center, Astronaut Selection Office, ATTN: AHX, Houston, TX 77058 or go to http://www.nasajobs.nasa.gov/how_to_apply/how_to_apply.htm

The truth is more complicated. Sean O'Keefe, the new head of NASA after Daniel Goldin's retirement, is a bean counter from the Office of Management and Budget. While NASA had some notable successes under Goldin's mantra of "smaller, cheaper, faster," such as the Mars Pathfinder in 1997 built for just $250 million, the NEAR probe of the asteroid Eros and eventual big project successes like the Hubble, NASA had some notable failures, too. In 1998, NASA lost the Polar Lander, and notoriously, the Climate Orbiter because of a measurement error. The agency has been criticized for cost overruns. However, the current Mars Odyssey Orbiter has successfully made it to orbit, and will start mapping the Red Planet next February.

The cost and rewards of putting humans into space is now being debated in terms of other priorities, like funding smaller science projects that could be done using new imaging technology and computerized robotic probes and sensors. If you are looking for a far-out IT career, space research will be largely conducted from the ground over the next decade. However, recruiting high-quality software engineers remains a critical priority for the space program. Software is becoming the largest single item in many space-program budgets. An astrophysicist I spoke to reported that a frequent topic of conversation between Houston and the space station is trouble with Microsoft Outlook. He recounts that he often hears the phrase, "If you close Outlook and open it again, it might work."

Ironically, it may be far easier to pay $20 million to buy your way into space as a space tourist, like Dennis Tito, than to get to space via the NASA pipeline. Space flights are not yet commercially available, but privately held Space Adventures is working on booking extreme adventure travel for the future.

Don't Touch That Dial!
Expect the rules for future space tourists to tighten up. NASA didn't let Dennis Tito enter the U.S. modules on the ISS without escort, lest he press the wrong button.

You can also go far as a game-show contestant. In a bid that puts "Survivor" to shame, MirCorp, in a joint venture with Image World Media, plans to produce a prime-time TV game show called "Ancient Astronaut."

The Russian Space and Aviation Agency has allegedly agreed to fly two TV-game-show winners on Soyuz missions to the ISS in 2003, pending the agreement of other ISS partners.

While NASA may turn up its nose at space marketing and product placement as prohibited by federal law, space marketing has a long tradition in the U.S. space program--ranging from Tang to watches. To NASA's chagrin, Rosaviakosmos (the Russian Aviation and Space Agency) sees it as a great source of cash. The former communists have embraced product placement in space with a vengeance. A Japanese athletic beverage maker just filmed a commercial for Pocari Sweat, apparently the Japanese version of Tang, in the Russian section of the ISS.

But say we get space tourism going. Pizza Hut starts making regular deliveries. We put up some promotional satellite billboards to liven up orbital highways littered with parts of discarded communications satellites, crumpled Pepsi cans, and old sandwich wrappers.

Then we will have truly achieved the visionary goal of having humankind feel right at home in space.

Wendy Wolfson is willing to donate the contents of her refrigerator to the space program, if it'll help her get into space sooner. Tell her what you're willing to contribute in her discussion forum.

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