Space dreams

Students launch astronaut ambitions in KU programs

Throughout Ben Parrott’s childhood, he told adults he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up.

“They usually said, ‘Ah, that’s cute.’ They’d pinch you on the cheek and tell you to go for it,” he says.

More than likely, they figured he – like most children – would outgrow that phase.

He didn’t.

Parrott now is a junior at Kansas University, and he still wants to be an astronaut. By the time he made it to this level, majoring in aerospace engineering with his sights set on designing spacecraft, those doubting grown-ups started taking him seriously.

“It’s definitely attainable,” Parrott says of his astronaut dreams. “They used to laugh at me when I said it. They don’t anymore.”

Realistic goal

Some never get over the childhood dream of floating in space.

Loral O’Hara had the dream when she was a child. It hasn’t changed much through the years.

“I’m interested in the exploration side of it,” says O’Hara, a KU senior in aerospace engineering. “I could go to Antarctica, but people have been there. I want to go where we’ve never been before and explore.”

Members of the Kansas University Microgravity Team, clockwise from front, are team leader Loral O'Hara, a senior from Overland Park; Austin Pyle, a junior from Halstead; Zach Schauf, a junior from Newton; and Ben Parrott, a junior from Overland Park. In June, the team will test a satellite propulsion system it designed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

O’Hara already has her pilot’s license, which she figures could help her get a leg up in the astronaut selection process down the road.

With the average age of new astronauts at 34, she has a while to hone her resume. She’ll start working at Rocketplane Limited Inc., a private Oklahoma City company aiming to start a space tourism operation, after graduating in December.

Even with that experience, she knows becoming an astronaut could be difficult.

“Everyone’s so highly qualified,” she says.

NASA currently has about 100 active astronauts and has been accepting about 20 new candidates every two to three years.

There are generally 150 to 200 applicants for every open astronaut position, and many of the candidates who don’t make it in are just as qualified on paper as those who do. The applicant pool has rarely dwindled, even in difficult times such as those that followed the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

But that shouldn’t discourage students, says Steve Hawley, a KU graduate, former astronaut and current director of space science for NASA.

“I think it is (realistic),” says Hawley, who was born in Ottawa and grew up in Salina. “You can be a kid in a small town in Kansas and grow up and do this stuff. It doesn’t mean you can’t be competitive in these kinds of positions.”

‘Stack of paper’

In 1978, when Hawley was accepted into the space program, most of the new astronauts had a military background. Now, it’s about half-military and half-civilian, though most of the civilians have advanced degrees, mostly in science.

Hawley has served several times on astronaut selection committees.

“Everybody initially is a stack of paper – a transcript, a resume, references, medical information and a standard government application form,” he says. “What you need to do is figure out a way to give the selection committee a reason to keep you. … Realistically, we’re spending several minutes, at best, looking at any one folder.”

Those could include a perfect grade-point average, extensive community participation, good writing skills or a long list of accomplishments for a young age.

“The thing we look for, first and foremost, is somebody that has demonstrated technical achievement and the ability to learn,” Hawley says. “Therefore, there are a few degrees that wouldn’t qualify, but a technical degree of any kind is going to be qualifying. And therefore, you should do something that really interests you. If you’re not passionate about it, you’re not going to be good at it.”

Good timing

Hawley says current KU students may be coming to the space program at an opportune time.

With the space shuttle era coming to a close, a new manned space vehicle in the works and goals of returning to the moon and getting a man on Mars, NASA will have plenty of work to keep astronauts and others busy, he says.

“People who are students today and are interested in becoming astronauts are going to be joining potentially at a very interesting time,” Hawley says. “They could be very well-positioned to be the people who might go back to the moon, and would be ideally suited to be going to Mars.”

For Justin Mills, though, the space program wasn’t developing quickly enough.

The team's satellite propulsion system, which is not yet fully completed, will be tested at zero gravity.

Mills, a former KU student body president, is now a fourth-year medical student at KU’s Wichita campus. He’s wanted to be an astronaut since he visited the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson when he was 10 or 11, and was going to medical school with hopes of becoming a flight physician.

But Mills says he thought the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 pushed back NASA’s plans enough that he might miss his window of opportunity to spend much time in space. He’s opted to go into pediatrics instead.

“It didn’t seem like the space program was going in a good direction,” he says. “It’s a bad time to join the corps.”

But Mills isn’t ruling out a change of heart down the road.

“If there was an opportunity to go up, I’d be the first to sign up,” he says.

Other KU students have a more optimistic approach. Zach Schauf, a junior in aerospace engineering, says he’d like to have a hand in designing the next generation of manned space vehicles – and someday fly in them himself.

“There will be a lot of opportunities for new study and design of the new spacecraft,” Schauf says. “There’s going to be a lot of new positions. If we want to go to Mars, we’ll be at the peak age.”

Astronauts wanted

Join the fast-paced world of space exploration as an astronaut with NASA. Ideal candidates will be between the ages of 26 and 46 and free of medical conditions that could impede space flight operations. Candidates who have had vision surgery are disqualified.

Military experience or an advanced degree in a scientific or technical field is preferred. U.S. citizenship is required. Beginning pay is $56,445, with salary advancement up to $104,581 possible with experience.

For more information, visit