Kate Gunderson’s childhood was filled with dreams of contributing to humanity’s exploration of space, with her eyes always fixed on the sky. Immediately after college, she landed her dream job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In the Aircraft Operations Division, she offered engineering assistance for Johnson Space Center’s extensive fleet of more than 20 aircraft. These aircraft are crucial for astronaut training, scientific missions, and ensuring astronaut safety. As NASA’s youngest Flight Science Officer, she flew on two Gulfstream aircraft, participating in airborne science expeditions and supporting astronauts on missions worldwide.

She joins the podcast to discuss the steps she took toward living out her dream career, empowering women in STEM, and what’s next for her in the world of security clearances.

The application process as a college student to a large organization like NASA may seem impossible. But Gunderson made her ideal job possible by implementing her own keys to success that listeners may be able to plug into their own careers, including leaning on formal (and sometimes more importantly, informal) mentors. Mentorship is critical in our world of national security and stem careers, and there are numbers showcasing how it can also lend to things like salary increases and a better career trajectory – Kate shares how an informal relationship brought her a front row seat at the NASA table, how she started the conversation, and how it helped her combat isolation in a male dominated industry.

Anyone who has gone through the Federal application process knows it has it’s challenges, so Gunderson shares what quirks she noticed and tips for listeners if they are looking to embark in the process. What’s next for Kate? Embarking on the security clearance process with a large household name contractor after finishing out her fellowship at National Test Pilot School.

How to Become an Astronaut at NASA

Becoming an astronaut at NASA is a challenging and competitive process that requires a combination of education, experience, and physical fitness. The journey to space is not only about the adventure among the stars but also about the rigorous preparation it entails.

First step is obtaining the right educational background. NASA requires astronaut candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science, or mathematics from an accredited institution. However, given the competitive nature of the selection process, most successful candidates have more advanced degrees such as a Master’s or a Doctorate. In addition to formal education, having at least three years of related, progressively responsible professional experience or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft can enhance a candidate’s qualifications. This experience demonstrates the ability to perform under pressure and solve complex problems, qualities essential for space missions.

Physical fitness is another critical requirement. Candidates undergo a stringent NASA medical examination, which includes vision, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal assessments. The ability to pass these physical exams is crucial since the extreme conditions of space can significantly impact the human body. Mental fortitude is equally important; astronauts must be able to work effectively in high-stress and isolated environments for extended periods.

Applying to NASA’s astronaut program when the selection process is open is the last step. These openings are not frequent, so staying informed and prepared is key. NASA looks for individuals with a blend of skill, experience, and the ability to work as part of a team. Skills in leadership, communication, and the ability to learn foreign languages (especially Russian, given the international nature of space missions) are highly valued. Once selected, candidates undergo two years of initial training, which includes military water survival, robotics skills, and T-38 jet proficiency, among other things.

The path to becoming an astronaut is long, demanding, and highly competitive, but for those with a passion for exploration and discovery, it can be incredibly rewarding.

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Katie Helbling is a marketing fanatic that enjoys anything digital, communications, promotions & events. She has 10+ years in the DoD supporting multiple contractors with recruitment strategy, staffing augmentation, marketing, & communications. Favorite type of beer: IPA. Fave hike: the Grouse Grind, Vancouver, BC. Fave social platform: ClearanceJobs! 🇺🇸