In the leaderboard of jobs that seem irresistible before one considers the hard work involved, astronaut ranks highly. The visual splendour of the earth viewed from above would be enough to seduce any would-be engineer or pilot into seeking work free from the shackles of gravity. And in their most recent open selection process, NASA received a record number of applicants hoping to be part of their class of ’17. From December 2015 to March 2016, over 18,300 people applied to become one of the dedicated few to have circumnavigated the globe in just 92 minutes.
The last time the record was set, in 1978, 8,000 people applied. This year’s 18,300 is more than double the long-standing record and three times that of 2012, the last time selection was opened. 'We have our work cut out for us with this many applications,' said Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at Johnson Space Center in Houston. But it's heartening to know so many people recognize what a great opportunity this is to be part of NASA's exciting mission.'
The application process is far from over, too. A rigorous 18-month selection program is set to commence before the thousands of applicants can be whittled down to the final eight to 14 successful candidates. Even if selected, the process requires years of training before aspirations of leaving earth’s atmosphere can be entertained. Astronauts are trained in the use of the spacecrafts’ systems, spacewalk skills and Russian language training among other disciplines. Some astronauts never get selected to fly on a mission, but the job is well paid enough to offset concerns of inactivity, before the passion necessary to be offered the job is considered. ‘Highly qualified’ applicants will be selected from the thousands of hopefuls, and of these 120 will be invited to NASA’s Johnson Space Center to be interviewed, primarily by experienced astronauts.
NASA takes applications on an as-required basis, so the irregularity with which applications are opened goes some way to explaining the volume of applicants, but this spike in particular is too notable to be taken as an inexplainable anomaly. So why is NASA seeing quite so many applicants this time around?
Well, firstly, entry requirements aren’t quite as demanding as you might think, and more and more people are achieving the necessary qualifications. A bachelor’s degree in a STEM field is required, and the growth in these areas has been steady; diversity in students, and the increased popularity of STEM fields more generally has seen the number of students rise from 241,000 in 2000 to 355,000 in 2012. The additional requirements of at least three years of ‘related, progressively responsible, professional experience’ - or, alternatively, 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in an aircraft - will see many of the applications quickly rejected. The increase in STEM graduates, though, will doubtless see higher numbers of considered applications than ever before.
NASA’s very effective social team is also, in part, responsible for the rise in applicant numbers. The institution’s presence online is huge, and they hold ‘social events’ where influencers can meet and speak with scientists, engineers, astronauts and managers. These events are just part of a push that has resulted in NASA managing the 78th most followed Twitter account, with over 15.2 million followers, and regular picture updates from astronauts on the International Space Station keep their feed full of engaging - and, of course, exclusive - content. Campaigns like #CitiesfromSpace have been successful and British astronaut Tim Peake, for example, has 488,000 followers. NASA’s social presence ties in with the greater awareness of such job openings, that will naturally result in a higher number of applicants. Hollywood, too, has been very focused lately on not just space itself but official missions; movies like Interstellar, The Martian and Gravity lead to greater social media engagement, and the spike in applications is hardly a surprising consequence.
Regardless of the number of applicants, NASA will still be hiring just eight to 14 budding astronauts in mid-2017. The interest is a positive reflection of advances in STEM diversity, though, and those ‘highly qualified’ applicants will be looking to take their talent elsewhere if NASA decide they don’t fit the bill. The unique appeal of NASA is clear, but the numbers make for optimistic reading for any STEM company wondering where to find top employees in a market often perceived to have a severe talent gap.