NASA Astronauts to Space Symposium attendees: ‘Please apply!’

Dan Boyce/CPR News
Caption: Attendees at the 39th Annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs ask speak with NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Raja Chari and Jessica Watkins about the astronaut application process on April 10, 2024.

Among the nearly 12,000 space industry professionals gathered this week in Colorado Springs for the annual Space Symposium, NASA officials are roaming the halls with a very specific mission: finding future astronauts.

It’s a job with which Raja Chari and Jessica Watkins have personal experience, both having served aboard the International Space Station.

“We are looking for people of all different experiences and backgrounds and types of academic experience,” Watkins said. “We are genuinely recruiting.”

NASA takes applications for a short time approximately every four years, with the current window set to close on April 16. Chari, a graduate of the U.S Naval Test Pilot School and nearby U.S. Air Force Academy, said less than a third of the 48 currently active NASA astronauts have military flight experience. Modern-day astronauts come with much more varied skill sets. She said NASA needs trained engineers, scientists, and medical professionals.

“There are problems we don't even know we have,” Chari said. “Hopefully there's someone in the 12,000 people here that we light a spark in that applies, and that's the key cog in the wheel of the team that gets us to the moon and eventually to Mars.”

Representatives from more than 40 countries attend the four-day convention, from companies ranging from enormous military contractors to science and technology firms to small start-ups manufacturing niche components.

Dan Boyce/CPR News
NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Jessica Watkins at the 39th annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on April 10, 2024.

Chari and Watkins said they met the manufacturers of equipment they used in space, like their spacewalk suits or the sleeping quarters aboard the space station.

“It's pretty fascinating to see how much effort it takes,” Chari said. “All the love that people have, the passion for the space industry. And [we] get to feel that energy here.” 

The astronauts, roaming the exhibit hall in their iconic blue flight suits, also acknowledged their jobs include being ambassadors for NASA and symbols of humankind’s expanding ambitions in space.

It’s an arena where Colorado continues to thrive, with about 500 space-focused companies operating in the state. As one example, Chari and Watkins said they regularly come to Denver to see progress on the Orion capsule being built by Lockheed Martin.

Watkins, who is from Lafayette, called the state a “central hub” for the industry. That was on full display at the symposium.

“You can totally geek out here,” Chari said. “If you're looking for that, this is probably the number one destination.”