For generations, children across the country have dreamt of becoming astronauts.
Most of the time, these dreams give way to what most people would consider more practical ambitions. But a select few have the audacity and drive to pursue a career amongst the stars.
Interest in NASA’s Astronaut Candidate Program has dramatically increased over the past two application seasons. NASA opens these application seasons every four to five years, so it’s essential that prospective candidates seize the moment. In 2013, NASA’s Astronaut Group 21 received a whopping 6,300 applications—surpassed only by 1978’s record of 8,000. NASA’s class of 2017 smashed both records with a pool of more than 18,300 applicants. That’s three times more applicants in just four years. Of those thousands that apply, it’s typical that only eight to twelve candidates will be selected.
Simply being chosen for the program is a distinguished accomplishment. But not every member of a training group will become astronauts. In 2018, former astronaut candidate Rob Kulin sparked interest when he resigned from NASA’s Astronaut Program. Kulin, citing personal reasons for his resignation, left an engineering job at SpaceX to enroll and was the first candidate to resign from the program in 50 years. Kulin’s resignation left NASA’s Group 21 with eleven candidates remaining.
Even for candidates who successfully complete the two-year program, there is no guarantee they will be selected for missions to space. As years pass between spaceflight missions, many astronauts find themselves disqualified due to physical decline before ever being chosen for flight.
Getting selected for the program is far from the beginning for astronaut hopefuls. It takes years of study, research, and training to build what’s considered a competitive resume for NASA. At the University of Hawaii-Manoa, PhD candidates Abigail Flom and Casey Honniball are among the next generation of young women prepared to take the plunge.
“As a child, I never dreamed of space. I was diagnosed with dyslexia in the first grade and had to repeat.” Casey Honniball tells Supercluster, reflecting on what first sparked her curiosity in space exploration, “It wasn’t until I was in high school and took my first physics class during sophomore year that I realized I liked space science.”
Meanwhile, Abigail Flom, a second-year PhD student, was one of those kids who always daydreamed of space travel—largely thanks to the awe-inspiring power of science fiction.
“Watching Star Wars with my family as a kid certainly springs to mind, and I was always interested in math and science,” says Abigail Flom, “However, I would say I didn’t become serious about space as a potential career until high school. I joined the rocket club and the stargazers club, and I found that space really brought all my interests together.”
Despite their differing personal histories with space, Flom and Honniball have these key qualities in common: an unbreakable work-ethic, a hunger for knowledge, and an acceptance that they will fail. Many times.
“Failure is inevitable and does not scare me. I have failed plenty of times,” says Honniball, “Most astronauts aren’t chosen the first or even second time they apply. I have some medical things that [could] disqualify me, but that doesn’t scare me. I am going to try anyways, and will continue to try even after that, because science is always changing our daily lives.”
“Obviously spaceflight is dangerous, and astronauts go through a lot of training about how to deal with problems if they arise,” Flom says.
“What scares methe mostis probably just the sheer complexity ofall that could go wrong in spaceflight.
And how much preparation is needed to be someone dependable for yourself and your teammates.”
“I guess the one thing that would scare me is actually being selected,” Honniball elaborates, “I would be scared to fail after selection, which would only make me work harder.”
Creating a portfolio that’s NASA-ready doesn’t happen overnight, and astronaut hopefuls undertake a marathon effort to earn the right credentials. Most serious applicants seek out military training for their pilot’s license and also pursue scuba certification. All must have at least a bachelor’s degree from accredited universities in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.
Both Honniball and Flom are on their way to checking all three points off the list. “I love to travel and have been to Antarctica twice for research. I am PADI open water scuba certified,” says Honniball, who spent her winter break in 2017 at NASA’s McCurdo Station in Antarctica, “I am training to become a private helicopter pilot. I decided to do this after my graduate advisor, Dr. Paul Lucey, told me stories of his father, a Marine Corps helicopter pilot.”
“I am currently working on my rescue diving scuba certification, and I would say that is one of the most challenging milestones that I’ve worked on so far,” says Flom, who is also a 2017 recipient of the Astronaut Scholarship, which granted her a year-long mentorship with former shuttle astronaut Michael Bloomfield. “It’s a lot of work and has been much harder for me than my previous two certifications, but knowing life saving procedures like this is really comforting and makes me feel like a better and safer diver,” she adds.
The good news for Flom and Honniball is that there are plenty of female role models ahead of them. The Astronaut Program class of 2013 had the highest percentage of female finalists in history, with four women making up exactly half of the candidates chosen for NASA’s Group 21.
No doubt, the 21st-century has brought many changes for women interested in spaceflight. It’s a far cry from 1962, when NASA representative George Low and then-astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics that women were not eligible astronaut candidates. At the time, NASA required all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test pilot programs—programs that refused to accept women amongst their ranks. It took another two decades for an American woman to reach space, when Sally Ride embarked on NASA’s seventh Space Shuttle mission in 1983.
Discrimination wasn’t unique to this era of free love and social upheaval. Honniball has personally encountered some of the sexist underpinnings lingering in STEM.
“I have been askedbefore if I was abooth babeat a conferencethat I was presentingtwo talks at.When somethinglike that happens to me,I simply let it go.”
“I know that times are changing, and women are being more accepted in science. But I also understand some people believe what they believe, and I try not to let their beliefs affect me.”
Statistics of female representation in STEM are jarring. Although nearly half of the current astronaut candidates are women, Google’s 2016 diversity in the tech workplace study revealed that 89% of all Engineering degrees and 69% of all Physical Science degrees in the US were pursued by male students. That same year, Donna Strickland became the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 55 years.
But female representation in STEM is largely on the upswing. Initiatives like Girls Who Code, the National Girls Collaborative Project, and Million Women Mentors have inspired middle and high-school girls across the country. According to the National Science Board, the percentage of employed women with PhDs in science and engineering has increased from 20.4% to 31.4% over the last two decades.
For Flom, it’s been smooth sailing in this respect. “I’m happy to say that I haven’t personally faced sexism or discrimination in my pursuit of a degree in STEM,” Flom says, “In fact, I’ve received a lot of support from teachers, advisors, and mentors who made a point of discussing how things are evolving and changing now in terms of incorporating women into STEM and encouraging me to be a part of that change””
Still, there’s a lot of stress that comes along with being a professional overachiever. Family life, relationships, and emotional well-being all must take a backseat to years of career-building.
“I found many men were intimidated by my drive and career choice as a scientist—wanting to be an astronaut. Some it pushed away,” says Honniball, “Until I met my husband, Zac, who pushes me to be better and supports my career choice—100%.”
Supportive networks of friends and family are essential when the going gets tough.
“I would say pursuing my career as a scientist and as an astronaut has caused some strain in my personal life. In order to pursue my degree in planetary science, I first moved to Florida for undergrad, and then to Hawaii for graduate school,” says Flom, who hails from Minnesota, “My friends have been really great though, reaching out to me and visiting when they have the opportunity. Plus, along the way, I’ve also met fantastic new people that I never would have known if I hadn’t ventured out of my home area. So, it’s definitely added some challenges to my relationships, but I think that it has been worth it despite that.”
But even with loved ones cheering them on, the brightest of today’s minds can be riddled with self-doubt.
“There are definitely days when I don’t feel smart enough or capable,” reflects Honniball, who has nearly completed the third year of her PhD program, “Sometimes, it takes weeks before I feel like I actually know what I am doing. Times like that, I tend to work harder, and that’s part of my way of dealing with it.”
“I’ve been challenged my whole life in overcoming my learning difference. Needing a challenge has sort of become a part of who I am,” says Honniball, “Without the challenge, I am not me. When I learned of the challenges of being an astronaut—the training, mental, and physical stress of working and living as an astronaut—it just seemed the perfect fit.”
That attitude toward challenge is exactly what separates candidates like these from the chaff. Their hunger for greater knowledge of the universe leads them to deep self-reflection, something many of us actively avoid. For people like Casey Honniball and Abigail Flom, their passion for what they do is what pushes them forward.
“If I didn’t love doing it for its own sake,” Flom says, “I definitely would not have made it as far as I have.”