For Some Earth Scientists, Flying to the Moon is the Ultimate Dream

By Kayla McKiski

Dean Eppler remembers the day vividly: It was Sunday, Sept. 24, 1989, and he was in his garage in Las Vegas changing the oil on his truck when the kitchen phone rang. He thought it might be his parents so he dashed inside with his hands full of grease. But it wasn’t them: On the phone was a man named Duane Ross, from the NASA Astronaut Selection Office, offering him an interview.

“He suggested the first week of October, but I had to go get a calendar to check because, frankly, I wasn’t sure what day it was, or what month it was, or, for that matter, what an ‘October’ was,” Eppler joked.

Dean Eppler at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Kevin Lizarazo)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

The following Saturday morning, he was on his way to Houston for a week of intensive physical, medical and psychiatric exams, and a round of interviews—a grueling experience he shared with 17 other aspiring astronauts, from a variety of impressive backgrounds.

“Their experience made them an intimidating bunch, at least to me,” recalled Eppler, a geologist who was then in his mid-thirties and working at Science Applications International Corporation.  “I later found out that they were thinking the same thing about my Ph.D. and overseas experience, feeling somewhat like underachievers with only a masters degree and a test pilot school graduation certificate. It goes to show you how easy it is to be overwhelmed with someone else’s achievements and to neglect your own.”

Eppler didn’t make the cut for the 1990 astronaut class, but he applied twice more and made it back to the first round of interviews both times. That’s an achievement in itself, something less than one percent of applicants reach. Eppler is one of several members of the RIS4E team who have applied to be astronauts and come close—a shared experience that forms a bond between them beyond their science partnership.

Every two to four years, NASA accepts applications for a new class of astronauts and picks a select few after a rigorous process. As it happened, the most recent class was announced just a few days after the RIS4E team arrived in New Mexico. The 12 new astronauts—seven men and five women—were selected from among 18,000 applications, an acceptance rate 10,000 times harder than Harvard’s.

According to NASA, the current base requirements are a bachelor’s degree in a discipline of engineering, science or math, along with at least three years of related professional professional experience or 1,000 hours commanding a jet aircraft. And, of course, “the ability to pass the NASA long-duration astronaut physical.”

For RIS4E team member Brent Garry, the physical test turned his trip to Houston into a more stressful adventure than he could have expected. “I found out I was medically disqualified this round and actually had a heart operation right there in Houston the weekend after my interview,” said Garry, a geologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “It was a bittersweet experience.  On one hand I got my health, but on the other I saw my dream of becoming an astronaut slip away.”

NASA volcanologist Brent Garry takes notes at Aden Crater. (Photo: Katherine Wright)
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Over the years, a handful of RIS4E team members have applied and made it to the first round of interviews.

“They’re trying to figure you out as a person,” said Jose Hurtado, RIS4E team member who has made it to the interview stage three of the four times he has applied. “Are you the person they would want to go on a long camping trip with?”

Interview topics range from the basic—“Tell us about your life since high school”—to tests of character like, “What would you do if you suspected someone you knew was committing adultery?”

UTEP professor Jose Hurtado at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Kayla McKiski)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

The first three groups of astronauts in the early 1960s were mostly military personnel with strong flight backgrounds. Astronaut Group 4, nicknamed “The Scientists” and selected in June 1965, was the first chosen based on research and academic experience. Since then, NASA has incorporated more scientific talent into its space teams. Four of the 2017 astronauts are civilians with science and engineering Ph.Ds.

“After you’ve done everything right, it’s pure dumb luck,” Eppler said. “They make that clear–if you’re here being interviewed, you’re good enough to be an astronaut.”

By that measure, Eppler, like Hurtado, was good enough three times. But in the scientist-astronaut sweepstakes the final decision usually comes down to what kind of scientist NASA needs for its mission at the time, according to Eppler.

“As far as I can tell, I made it consistently to the bottom of the top one-third every time, just shy of selection, so the good news is that I was consistently very good, but the bad news is that I was never quite good enough,” Eppler said. Still, he said, he’s found that NASA employees who get to the interview stage, especially more than once, tend to be noticed within the agency. “You’re ‘tagged’ as someone whose talents and capabilities are what the agency needs to get its missions done, so from then on, you’re in demand,” Eppler said, adding, “Every one that was in an interview group with me that was ‘inside’ NASA went on to a very successful career.”

Dean Eppler testing astronaut spacesuits in 2003. Photo: NASA

In a way, it got Eppler painfully close to the dream: For several years one of his responsibilities at Johnson Space Center was putting on advanced spacesuits on mock EVAs in the Arizona desert and testing them for things like mobility and human-robotic interaction.

“In a way, not getting selected, while disappointing, was the foundation for everything I’ve done since,” he said.

Others aren’t so philosophical. Hurtado says he’s heard of unsuccessful candidates who filed freedom of information requests with NASA to find out why they didn’t make it.

“The application process itself is a personal journey,” Garry said. “I’ve noticed that many interviewees, like myself, are very private about the whole experience, especially during the months it is going on,  and sometimes don’t tell people they even applied.”

Although there are no formal age restrictions for applicants, the age for new astronauts averages 34 and typically ranges up to 46. For Eppler, 64, the window may have closed. For Hurtado, 43, the dream isn’t over.

“I’m going to apply until they tell me not to anymore,” he said.

For Some Earth Scientists, Flying to the Moon is the Ultimate Dream

By Kayla McKiski

Dean Eppler remembers the day vividly: It was Sunday, Sept. 24, 1989, and he was in his garage in Las Vegas changing the oil on his truck when the kitchen phone rang. He thought it might be his parents so he dashed inside with his hands full of grease. But it wasn’t them: On the phone was a man named Duane Ross, from the NASA Astronaut Selection Office, offering him an interview.

“He suggested the first week of October, but I had to go get a calendar to check because, frankly, I wasn’t sure what day it was, or what month it was, or, for that matter, what an ‘October’ was,” Eppler joked.

Dean Eppler at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Kevin Lizarazo)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

The following Saturday morning, he was on his way to Houston for a week of intensive physical, medical and psychiatric exams, and a round of interviews—a grueling experience he shared with 17 other aspiring astronauts, from a variety of impressive backgrounds.

“Their experience made them an intimidating bunch, at least to me,” recalled Eppler, a geologist who was then in his mid-thirties and working at Science Applications International Corporation.  “I later found out that they were thinking the same thing about my Ph.D. and overseas experience, feeling somewhat like underachievers with only a masters degree and a test pilot school graduation certificate. It goes to show you how easy it is to be overwhelmed with someone else’s achievements and to neglect your own.”

Eppler didn’t make the cut for the 1990 astronaut class, but he applied twice more and made it back to the first round of interviews both times. That’s an achievement in itself, something less than one percent of applicants reach. Eppler is one of several members of the RIS4E team who have applied to be astronauts and come close—a shared experience that forms a bond between them beyond their science partnership.

Every two to four years, NASA accepts applications for a new class of astronauts and picks a select few after a rigorous process. As it happened, the most recent class was announced just a few days after the RIS4E team arrived in New Mexico. The 12 new astronauts—seven men and five women—were selected from among 18,000 applications, an acceptance rate 10,000 times harder than Harvard’s.

According to NASA, the current base requirements are a bachelor’s degree in a discipline of engineering, science or math, along with at least three years of related professional professional experience or 1,000 hours commanding a jet aircraft. And, of course, “the ability to pass the NASA long-duration astronaut physical.”

For RIS4E team member Brent Garry, the physical test turned his trip to Houston into a more stressful adventure than he could have expected. “I found out I was medically disqualified this round and actually had a heart operation right there in Houston the weekend after my interview,” said Garry, a geologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “It was a bittersweet experience.  On one hand I got my health, but on the other I saw my dream of becoming an astronaut slip away.”

NASA volcanologist Brent Garry takes notes at Aden Crater. (Photo: Katherine Wright)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

Over the years, a handful of RIS4E team members have applied and made it to the first round of interviews.

“They’re trying to figure you out as a person,” said Jose Hurtado, RIS4E team member who has made it to the interview stage three of the four times he has applied. “Are you the person they would want to go on a long camping trip with?”

Interview topics range from the basic—“Tell us about your life since high school”—to tests of character like, “What would you do if you suspected someone you knew was committing adultery?”

UTEP professor Jose Hurtado at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Kayla McKiski)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

The first three groups of astronauts in the early 1960s were mostly military personnel with strong flight backgrounds. Astronaut Group 4, nicknamed “The Scientists” and selected in June 1965, was the first chosen based on research and academic experience. Since then, NASA has incorporated more scientific talent into its space teams. Four of the 2017 astronauts are civilians with science and engineering Ph.Ds.

“After you’ve done everything right, it’s pure dumb luck,” Eppler said. “They make that clear–if you’re here being interviewed, you’re good enough to be an astronaut.”

By that measure, Eppler, like Hurtado, was good enough three times. But in the scientist-astronaut sweepstakes the final decision usually comes down to what kind of scientist NASA needs for its mission at the time, according to Eppler.

“As far as I can tell, I made it consistently to the bottom of the top one-third every time, just shy of selection, so the good news is that I was consistently very good, but the bad news is that I was never quite good enough,” Eppler said. Still, he said, he’s found that NASA employees who get to the interview stage, especially more than once, tend to be noticed within the agency. “You’re ‘tagged’ as someone whose talents and capabilities are what the agency needs to get its missions done, so from then on, you’re in demand,” Eppler said, adding, “Every one that was in an interview group with me that was ‘inside’ NASA went on to a very successful career.”

Dean Eppler testing astronaut spacesuits in 2003. Photo: NASA

In a way, it got Eppler painfully close to the dream: For several years one of his responsibilities at Johnson Space Center was putting on advanced spacesuits on mock EVAs in the Arizona desert and testing them for things like mobility and human-robotic interaction.

“In a way, not getting selected, while disappointing, was the foundation for everything I’ve done since,” he said.

Others aren’t so philosophical. Hurtado says he’s heard of unsuccessful candidates who filed freedom of information requests with NASA to find out why they didn’t make it.

“The application process itself is a personal journey,” Garry said. “I’ve noticed that many interviewees, like myself, are very private about the whole experience, especially during the months it is going on,  and sometimes don’t tell people they even applied.”

Although there are no formal age restrictions for applicants, the age for new astronauts averages 34 and typically ranges up to 46. For Eppler, 64, the window may have closed. For Hurtado, 43, the dream isn’t over.

“I’m going to apply until they tell me not to anymore,” he said.