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The Would-Be Astronaut

Brian Shiro has been rejected from NASA's astronaut program—twice. So he started his own astronaut-for-hire service.

When Brian Shiro answers the phone, he warns that if an earthquake occurs, and his beeper beeps, he's going to have to go.

"I'm on call 24/7 right now," he said.

Shiro is at work in the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center on Hawaii's Ford Island. The Center consists of two World War II-era hangars, retrofitted with green-tech, a gym, and the wood-glass-metal combinations that resemble a hip loft apartment. From this outpost, Shiro warns coast-dwellers about approaching waves.

During his shifts, he sits in front of six connected computer screens, their light bouncing off his floral button-downs. Latitudes, longitudes, and raw seismic data flood the control center, showing what's shaking around the world. With his mouse moving between the monitors, Shiro looks like the do-good commander of some starship.

And that, actually, is what he would like to be—a spaceman in the new Space Age. Shiro has tried, twice, applying to be a NASA astronaut in 2007 and 2012. NASA, however, declared him merely "highly qualified." That top-10-percent honor makes a nice resume bullet point but doesn't get Shiro a seat on the Space Station.

But after NASA rejected him, Shiro started his own astronaut preparation and networking organization, called A4H ("Astronauts4Hire"). A4H hooks people up with the hypothermic wilderness courses, hyperbolic flight experience, and high-intensity simulation programs, as well as with contract space-based jobs. He hopes the extra experiences will boost applications (including his) to the top of NASA's pile, and make astro-hopefuls attractive to the new crop of private spaceflight companies. Businesses like Virgin Galactic will soon start sending people to low-Earth orbit on the regular, which means the answer to perennial third-grade question "How do I become an astronaut?" is about to change. And the door to space, Shiro believes, will swing open for more than just the ultra-rich.

"One thing I learned is don't stress about it"

In the Apollo days, NASA preferred their astronauts to be of the cigar-smoking male test pilot variety. Although less nicotine is usually involved now and NASA removed its "no girls allowed" sign, the path from military to space remains clear. But NASA has also added a second type of astronaut, called a mission specialist. No wings needed to qualify. Instead, a mission specialist can sub in scientific or engineering experience.

For 30 years, from 1981 to 2011, US astronauts looked forward to riding the space shuttle to low-Earth orbit and, potentially, sojourning on the Space Station. But after 2011, when the agency retired the shuttles, any American going to space first needed a passport and a plane ticket to Russia.

So far, astronauts have mostly spent time in tiny metal boxes floating near our home planet. In the future, though, NASA plans to send them farther afield: to an asteroid and then to Mars. The skills a spacefarer will need to lasso a space rock or start a colony on the Red Planet differ from the skills needed to carousel around Earth. At the same time, private companies are ramping up their suborbital options—space planes that send people more than 60 miles above Earth's surface, which some dramatically call "the edge of space."

The cheapest of those flights will run around $95,000. Many of those seats will be filled by the 1 percent. But someone has to fly the spaceship, which won't be ferrying tourists 24/7/365.25.

During the ships' downtime, a new version of the "mission specialist" can use them to do meaningful science. For his part, Shiro wants to be the intermediary between people who know spaceflight and people who know science, linking them in a symbiotic relationship. That's the core idea behind A4H, which trains scientists to become astronauts and trains astronaut hopefuls to do science, in proxy, for researchers who are afraid of rockets. Shiro believes A4H, for a nominal membership fee, can both fast track these commercial candidates and prepare people to meet NASA's deep-space needs.

Stephanie Schierholz, NASA's spokesperson for Human Exploration, said the agency doesn't comment on "programs into which it doesn't have any insight." But the more astronaut-relevant skills a candidate has, the better off they'll be, regardless of where they got those skills.

"For example, you'll see that astronaut candidates must obtain SCUBA qualification," she said. "Obviously, if someone applying already has this qualification, that is to their benefit." (Shiro, for the record, can SCUBA dive.)

Jonathan McDowell, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who has since 1989 published a biweekly report on spaceflight, agrees—kind of.

"The skills they mention do indeed improve your qualifications for spaceflight," he told me. "But they need to give employers confidence that the [A4Hs'] experiences are of appropriate quality and not just at a cheesy theme park level. Just like passing a course in quantum mechanics at Princeton is not the same thing as passing one at Podunk Community College."

It all depends, McDowell said, on the reputation A4H gets with NASA's Astronaut Office. They need to make themselves into insiders.

***

Shiro's desire to be inside space started with Star Wars (ewoks, specifically), or with the model rockets his father gave him. But he didn't really want to be an astronaut until a middle-school trip to Space Camp. Here, hormone-addled adolescents swivel around in gyroscopes and carry out simulated missions. When Shiro arrived at the Huntsville, Alabama, facility, he immediately asked, "Where's your zero-G room?" (No such room exists.)

After camp, Shiro read lots of space-y science fiction and then signed up for another space camp, called "Mission to Mars." Here, his team quickly voted him in as the mission's commander, an illustrious role the 13-year-olds announced at a fake press conference. "Everything follows from that," he said.

Shiro in Antarctica. Photo courtesy Brian Shiro

After a few tedious years in college physics labs, Shiro discovered geology and its attractive outdoorsiness. So he took the logical step away from the ivory tower, onto Alaskan ice, on backcountry skis, for two months and 80 miles, as part of the longest-running study of a glacier.

"You're out there on ice the whole time, setting up camp, staying a few days, moving on," he explained. It sounds like the kind of trip our ancestors made for us, so we wouldn't have to. But that's not what Shiro said. Shiro said: "It's wonderful."

One day, during a whiteout that felt like living inside a sheet, the team lost their way. When they finally found the shelter, they stripped down, started a fire, found emergency food, and fixed up the person with blackened fingertips. It sounds like the kind of emergency that would shake a person up and away from expeditions. Shiro said, "It made me love the ice and being outdoors."

He was addicted—to our planet, to hardship, to exploration, to isolation. He went on seismology expeditions to Alaska, Fiji, and Antarctica. In the Mariana Islands, he was the first to report a volcanic eruption on the uninhabited Anatahan—just three days after he'd decamped from a stay there. The day he had left, the island had been lush and green in the way of islands. Seventy-two hours later, though, the flora grew a new skin of ash, like a botanical version of Pompeii.

Shiro's burgeoning relationship with Earth didn't displace or diminish his relationship with space. "It was always my intention to be an astronaut," he told me. "In the back of my mind, to be an astronaut." He sees a connection between his terrestrial tectonic work and the celestial sphere. "Think back to Apollo," he said. "Every single Apollo landing had one thing in common." That is, every mission deployed a lunar seismic station, which measured waves beneath the Moon's surface.

These waves give away secrets about what's locked inside. Like a CT scan, seismology allows scientists to learn about what lies within moons, planets, and stars. And scientists can study them from afar. When you can't take a trip somewhere, the next best thing is to watch it wiggle.

"They're splitting hairs, looking for reasons to throw you out."

In September 2007, Shiro had been working at the Tsunami Center for two years when NASA put out a call for new astronauts. "Frequent travel may be required," the job posting stated. Shiro started his paperwork and a blog: www.astronautforhire.com. With the blog, he aimed to become the go-to source for information about the selection process, which he felt was opaque.

"They want you to be yourself," he said. "To show up and be able to respond to what they throw at you. … But there's a real thirst from applicants to know more."

He worked with another website called AsHos (short for "Astronaut Hopefuls") to demystify the dream. He helped nail down NASA's timeline, rank its preferences, quantify its previous selections, and—once it started—detail in the interview process based on first-hand accounts from the ascended elite. (A great deal of information is available today on NASA's own websites, Schierholz pointed out.)

Unfortunately, Shiro could not count himself among the fortunate few. He remained in the "highly qualified" category, a set that included just 449 of the original 3,564 applicants. Some of those 449 would go on to a battery of psychological evaluations, medical probings, personality quizzes, and tests of their ability to drive robot cars.

"They're splitting hairs, looking for reasons to throw you out," Shiro told me. "And at the end of the day, it comes down to how good a fit you are. They ask themselves, 'Would you want to be stuck on a little spaceship with this person?'"

Shiro, with his Boy-Scout values of optimism and preparation, took a "we'll get 'em next time" attitude about his own rejection. And he would soon go on an expedition to make that attitude less Pollyanna and more practical: a month-long stay at a simulated Mars colony in Canada.

Shiro at FMARS. Photo courtesy Brian Shiro

In July 2009, Shiro set out for one month at the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) on Devon Island. Devon is part of the archipelago above Canada's main body, resting in the frigid waters near Greenland. In its polar desert, the eroded humps of badlands roll down into Haynes Ridge. This ridge overlooks the Haughton Impact Crater, a 14-mile-wide depression that some space rock made 39 million years ago. On the ridge sits a yurt-like outpost in which crews mimic missions to Mars. FMARS exists to support "parallel studies of the technologies, strategies, architectural design, and human factors involved in human missions to Mars."

Shiro and the five other crew members lived in the tight-space pod together and ventured into the Arctic breeze only if dressed in space suits and loaded down with shotguns, in case of polar bear run-ins. They communicated with "mission control" on a 20-minute delay, just like astronauts would from Mars, and dealt with their own problems like run-down "rovers" (ATVs) with the tools available. "Things will break," Shiro said. "There's not a hardware store to go buy parts."

In 2010, while Shiro was "on Mars" again (this time in Utah) he read emails from friends attending the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference that was taking place in Boulder, Colorado. There, the suborbital space community was discussing the intersection of space-planes and science.

"If you're a scientist and want to fly, how do you do that?" Shiro explained. "How do you do your training? How do you prep the experiment itself? Even for scientists who might not want to do that personally, how do you find someone who can help?"

From his post on the barren desert, Shiro saw an opportunity.

"It's not that realistic to sit around and wait for someone to knock on your door and say, 'Hey, we need an astronaut,' although certainly we would respond to that," Shiro said. Instead, Astronauts4Hire, is "not just creating the best-prepared people but also creating the missions, growing the industry, growing the demand, and showing there's real need for this type of science."

***

Shiro believes that industry will materialize because of simple economics. "When the flights do start happening, there's going to be a lot of fanfare for the wealthy people who paid for their tickets," said Shiro. "But that's limited. There's only so many people who can pay those prices in the long term… The dollars that are available through NASA, NOAA, and the NIH are much bigger than the more limited dollars coming from wealthy actors." The agencies have, as Carl Sagan would say, billions and billions to give out in grants.

Others, though, express more doubts. McDowell, for instance, thinks the real question isn't whetherthese agencies can fund the work at a significant level, but whether they will. "They haven't put that much money into balloons and sounding rockets," the other non-orbital, high-altitude technologies, he said. "It's possible that NASA, or other agencies, will find that Virgin Galactic or XCOR flights are really useful, and they'll divert significant [satellite-program-level] dollars to them," he continued. "But, at least on that next-decade horizon, I'd be surprised. I think they'll make use of the capability at a low-ish level."

McDowell estimates the private companies will hire between 20 and 40 astronauts, if all goes well. Since its conception, A4H has grown to a community of more than 170 people of two types: flight members and associate members. Anyone with $40 can become an associate member, gaining discounts to private training camps. But they can't access the jobs that companies contract out to A4H. That benefit goes to flight members, the actual astronauts for hire, who go through a vetting process to make sure someone could hire them as astronauts.

Take Jonna Ocampo, a member of the most recent astronaut class who is also a power-lifter and a two-time Ms. Figure America champion. She wants to go to space. It looks like she will: A biomedical experiment that she developed made the manifest for a 2016 XCOR Lynx suborbital flight.

She and other flight members also train with Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere). A4H member Jason Reimuller developed PoSSUM to study cloud formation. It's the only manned project that NASA has ever approved for suborbital flight, and Reimuller uses the opportunity to train citizen astronauts through an immersive program at Florida flight school Embry-Riddle.

A4H's very first contract, back in 2010, felt more fratty: Saber Astronautics Australia and 4-Pines Brewing Company hired one of their astronauts to drink beer in microgravity in a "vomit comet," a plane that flies in a series of parabolic arcs that leave riders weightless for 30 seconds at a time. The companies intend their Vostok Space Brew, with its high flavor and low carbonation, for space tourists. Hired astronaut Todd Romberger tested taste and human response to party time in "space."

Shiro in spinning chair. Photo courtesy Brian Shiro

After he founded A4H, Shiro continued to transform himself into a more hirable astronaut, for both NASA and private industry. He spent two weeks in the Utah desert in another simulated Mars mission. He spun in a centrifuge until his vision grayed out; he didn't throw up in a spinning room or a spinning chair; he learned to escape a (fake) spaceship that had (fake) crashed in the ocean, upside-down; he spent hours bobbing up and down in a (real) raft on the (real) ocean, awaiting rescue; he sat in a room while someone sucked most of the oxygen out.

Then, in 2012, NASA put out their next call for astronauts. Shiro typed his new experiences, as well as the founding of A4H and a shiny new Space Studies Master's degree, onto his resume.

Shiro spins in a centrifuge. Photo: Brian Shiro

A little over a year later, he learned that while NASA again considered him "highly qualified," he would not advance beyond that. With 6,372 applications, that year represented the largest batch of hopefuls ever.

"One thing I learned is don't stress about it," Shiro said. "You may be a great candidate. Lots of people who apply would make good astronauts. …I don't get too invested emotionally because chances are it's not going to work out."

Watch more Motherboard: When will humans live on Mars?

Today, Shiro continues his relentless self-improvement. He's training for his first ultramarathon. He's working on his PhD. He serves as Mission Support Manager for the Mars HI-SEAS simulation program, in which people spend up to a year isolated on a Hawaiian version of the Red Planet. For days-long shifts, he lives in the small quarters at the Tsunami Prediction Center, waiting for the Earth to shake, for its inner struggle to have an effect on the outside world.

He'll apply to be a NASA astronaut again when the time comes, typing relevant experience when the blinking cursor on usajobs.gov asks for it. So will thousands of others. But soon, for the first time in history, Shiro and those thousands may have options beyond NASA. Or maybe not. Shiro prepares for both realities.

"I'll stay grounded while on the Earth, and work on the Earth," he said, "because it's the only planet we have, and it's important to understand it."