Garrett Reisman

How many of us, as children, followed the exploits of America's astronauts and thought to ourselves, "Gee, wouldn't it be really neat to be an astronaut?"

Most of us put that thought aside and went on with the business of pursuing more mundane, but more promising, options. Not so for Garrett Reisman (EAS/W'91). Reisman pursued a career in aerospace engineering, where he could continue to seek the big prize -- a spot in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's corps of astronauts.

As you read this, Reisman is on his way to becoming part of that corps. On Aug. 24, he and 24 other candidates began their training as members of the 1998 astronaut class at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. Once he completes the two-year course -- and according to NASA spokesperson Eileen Holley, just about every astronaut candidate has done so -- Reisman will join the 120 Americans and 19 foreign citizens currently on NASA's astronaut roster.

The Penn alumnus never let go of his childhood dream of flying in space. By this time in 2000, he may realize it.

Photo by Brett Coomer

He will also be the first Penn undergraduate alumnus to serve as an astronaut. Another astronaut, Mike Gernhardt (GEng'83, Gr'91), holds master's and doctoral degrees from Penn.

We caught up with Reisman via telephone at his former employer, TRW Space and Electronics Group in Redondo Beach, Calif., and asked him about how he came to apply for an astronaut's job and what he will have to go through to finally get it.

Q. How long have you wanted to be an astronaut?
It was a childhood dream of mine. My parents had a Super 8 movie of the Apollo astronauts, and I watched it over and over. It had more Scotch Tape on it than any other movie we had.
When I was at Penn, I would go up to the rooftop lounges at 5 a.m. to see the Space Shuttle fly. Now, I think, "Boy, I'm going to get that view from the other side," and it's really gratifying.

Q. So when did you decide to actually apply?
It was while I was at Penn that I researched it. I gathered materials and wrote to the JSC about applying. It was then that I found out that I didn't meet the minimum requirements, so I couldn't apply until after I was at Caltech. (Reisman holds a master's degree from California Institute of Technology.)
Once I met the minimum requirements, it was just a matter of paperwork, filling out the standard form for Federal employment -- where it asks you what position, you just put down "astronaut."
I even put down my typing speed -- 30 words a minute -- but I found out it wasn't needed.

Q. What's involved in the astronaut training?
The process lasts about a year and a half, and it involves some fun things, like land and water survival skills. You take a trip on the "vomit comet," a KC-135 jet that flies in a parabolic arc to simulate weightlessness. And there's also flying T-38 jets, which fly at high altitudes and supersonic speeds with conditions similar to those on the shuttle. I'm already a civilian pilot and flight instructor, but I've only flown single-engine prop planes, so the military aircage will be quite a step up for me.
There's also classwork involved -- learning about features of the shuttle and the International Space Station, and work on simulators.

Q. What kind of work will you be doing as an astronaut?
We won't know precisely what our task is in space until we get our specific mission. But we know that a lot of the flights coming up will be involved with the Space Station, so I believe a lot of us will be involved in Space Station work.
There are two types of astronauts, pilots, who fly the shuttle, and mission specialists, who sit in the back and ask "Are we there yet?" Actually, mission specialists also get to do neat stuff, like spacewalks and operating the shuttle's robot arm. I will be a mission specialist.

Q. What are the minimum requirements to become a mission specialist?
There are weight, height and eyesight requirements -- the upper limit for height is 6 feet 4 inches and the minimum is about 5 feet 1 inch. The eyesight requirements are less stringent for mission specialists than for pilots; a mission specialist can have uncorrected vision of 20/200. But there are hundreds of different parameters, and failing any one can disqualify you.
There's also an education requirement. For a mission specialist, it is at least a bachelor's degree in science or engineering with three years' work experience. With a master's, it's two years, and with a Ph.D., there's no work experience needed.
The height requirements are because the spacesuits are assembled for you from components, and you must fit into a certain range for the components to fit. One of the things they did for us while we were trying out was put us in a mockup of the Soyuz space capsule seat, because they are considering using those as escape vehicles for the international space station. They were taking all sorts of different measurements, so I asked if they could make me a nice grey flannel suit while I was there.

Q. What are you most looking forward to as an astronaut?
The ride into space is the most exciting thing. It's by no means guaranteed that I'll do a spacewalk, but I might get to do one of those as well. That's probably the most thrilling thing I could imagine. Of course, lots of astronauts feel the same way.

Q. Any chance that some of your former co-workers might follow you down this career path?
A number of my co-workers have expressed interest in following in my footsteps. Many have asked where they can get the application forms. Everybody at TRW is excited about the U.S. space program, so it would be natural that there would be a high interest in joining the astronaut corps.

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Originally published on September 3, 1998