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Military Made: 3 of NASA's Newest Astronauts Talk Training, What's Next

After learning Russian and robotics and training in jets and spacesuits over the past two years, NASA's newest astronauts are ready to take a giant leap forward for space exploration.  

Chosen from a pool of more than 12,000 applicants, eight of the 10 Americans from NASA's Class of 2024 who graduated in January just happen to be current or former service members.  

A person in a flight suit smiles for a photo.
Jessica Wittner
NASA astronaut candidate Jessica Wittner poses for an official portrait, Dec. 21, 2021. Wittner was one of 10 selected for NASA's 2021 Astronaut Candidate Program.
Photo By: Robert Markowitz, NASA
VIRIN: 211221-N-YF503-1001Y
A person in a flight suit smiles for a photo.
Luke Delaney
NASA astronaut candidate Luke Delaney poses for an official portrait, Dec. 6, 2021. Delaney was one of 10 selected for NASA's 2021 Astronaut Candidate Program.
Photo By: Robert Markowitz, NASA
VIRIN: 211206-M-D0439-082Y
A person in a flight suit smiles for a photo.
Andre Douglas
NASA astronaut candidate Andre Douglas poses for an official portrait, Dec. 3, 2021. Douglas was one of 10 selected for NASA's 2021 Astronaut Candidate Program.
Photo By: Robert Markowitz, NASA
VIRIN: 211203-G-OS937-1001Y
Among those who successfully made it through the program are Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jessica Wittner, retired Marine Corps Maj. Luke Delaney and Coast Guard Cmdr. Andre Douglas. The trio recently discussed their journeys to NASA, as well as what they're doing now and how others can potentially follow in their footsteps.   

Impressive Backgrounds  

To say each of these astronauts is smart and dedicated is an understatement. Wittner has two degrees in aerospace engineering and has been a fighter pilot and test pilot since 2011. Delaney earned his wings as a KC-130 Navigator pilot in 2008 and also spent time as a test pilot. He deployed to Afghanistan twice, participated in multiple international coalition exercises and has degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering. 

Douglas earned a mechanical engineering degree from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2008 and served in many capacities until 2015, when he began work supporting space exploration and robotics at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. He holds three master's degrees — in mechanical engineering, in naval architecture and marine engineering, and in electrical and computer engineering — as well as a doctorate in systems engineering.  

While their experiences and expertise served them well over the past two years of astronaut training, each said they discovered they still had a lot to learn.  

A pilot inspects an aircraft.
Jessica Wittner
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jessica Wittner, a NASA astronaut candidate, prepares for T-38 flight training at Ellington Field in Houston, Feb. 6, 2023.
Photo By: Josh Valcarcel, NASA
VIRIN: 230206-D-D0439-046Y

Similarities, Differences to Military Life 

Wittner can still be called upon to serve the Navy if needed, but for now, she's deeply entrenched in her NASA duties, which still include flying jets.  

"We teach the members of our class who don't come from a pilot background," Wittner said. "We use the T-38 [Talon] to train them up." 

She and Delaney said they found similarities between their days flying jets and astronaut training. 

"[Fighter pilot training] really teaches you to problem solve time-critical issues and then apply those in real-time," Wittner said. "That training that I got through the Navy has really helped me here … being able to think critically through the problem and then make a time-critical decision on what you should do." 

"When you get into the test pilot arena, you start working on projects and developing new technologies and fielding new systems. That really bridges the gap pretty well," said Delaney, who transitioned from the Marines to working as an aerospace engineer and research pilot at NASA's Langley Research Center in 2020. "From avionics to guidance, navigation, even life support systems — all those are very similar concepts." 

A person kneels down so a child can pin something to their lapel. People standing in the background smile.
Commissioning Ceremony
Coast Guard Cmdr. Andre Douglas joins the Reserve force during a commissioning ceremony at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., March 19, 2024. Douglas, a Coast Guard Academy Class of 2008 graduate, reported to NASA in January 2022 and completed astronaut training March 5, 2024.
Photo By: Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Giles
VIRIN: 240319-G-LB502-9742Y

Douglas, who left the Coast Guard about a decade ago but recently recommissioned as a commander, said the Coast Guard's overall theme — to be flexible and adaptable — really helped him.  

"When we were at sea, we usually had three to four missions at a time. So, you may be planning to wake up and do some drug enforcement operations, but then all of a sudden, there's like 700 migrants off the coast of Haiti you need to save," he said. "That just prepares you to be ready for anything." 

Douglas, who was one of the youngest members of his astronaut class, has collaborated with NASA several times over the past decade working at the JHU Applied Physics Lab. But he said being an astronaut is very different from the developmental side of things.  

"When we're at the lab, we're building spacecraft to do very complex missions. … You're an engineer either handling software, testing, designing or building hardware," Douglas said. "As an astronaut, we're learning how to operate vehicles. We're learning how to work together as a team … and that's a whole different mindset." 

A person in a spacesuit adjusts their glasses.
Luke Delaney
Retired Marine Corps Maj. Luke Delaney, a NASA astronaut candidate, wears a spacesuit prior to underwater spacewalk training at NASA Johnson Space Center's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, Feb. 13, 2023.
Photo By: Bill Stafford, NASA
VIRIN: 230213-D-D0439-049Y
A person wearing a large helmet sits in front of a simulator consul.
Luke Delaney
NASA Astronaut candidate Luke Delaney operates the AH-64E simulator during training at Fort Novosel, Ala., Jan. 26, 2024.
Photo By: Brittany Trumbull, Army
VIRIN: 240126-A-SR274-4493Y

Summing Up 2 Years of Training 

When asked to describe their complex training over the past two years, the three astronauts used terms we could all understand: "diverse," "dynamic" and "busy but fun," with a new challenge every week.  

"You're probably doing some spacewalk training one day – so, you're in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, inside the suit doing different runs and tasks and evaluations," Delaney said. "Then the next day, you're in the jet … maybe under G [force] doing some maneuvers, or you're just working to get what we call spaceflight readiness training." 

They're also busy getting up to speed on how to run the International Space Station, "learning the maintenance that we're going to do onboard, learning how to fly the robotic arm, and learning how to do EVAs — how to go out the door and do spacewalks to repair the things we need to repair outside," Wittner said. 

When it comes to spacewalks, Wittner said training in a swimming pool was very different from any of her pilot training, but the same problem-solving skills came into play.  

"The pool training is really unique," she said. "We get nine runs in the pool as astronaut candidates … and you need all nine of those runs, really, to figure out the best way to move and to start to gain those efficiencies … because as soon as you go out the door in a spacewalk, you want to be as efficient as possible." 

A person hunches over a small fire, poking it with a stick.
Wilderness Survival Training
NASA astronaut candidates take Wilderness Survival Training at Ft. Rucker, Ala., Feb. 10, 2022.
Photo By: Robert Markowitz, NASA
VIRIN: 220210-D-D0439-101Y
A person looks through a piece of wilderness survival equipment as a another person watches.
Wilderness Survival Training
NASA astronaut candidates take Wilderness Survival Training at Ft. Rucker, Ala., Feb. 8, 2022.
Photo By: Robert Markowitz, NASA
VIRIN: 220208-D-D0439-088Y
Four people admire a tent they made in the woods using sticks, leaves and tree branches.
Wilderness Survival Training
NASA astronaut candidates take Wilderness Survival Training at Ft. Rucker, Ala., Feb. 8, 2022.
Photo By: Robert Markowitz, NASA
VIRIN: 220208-D-D0439-089Y
There's also a lot of travel and outdoor activities, including a run at survival school.  

"Expeditionary skills are a big part of what we do — being able to function in austere environments and be self-sustaining," Delaney said. "You've got to have that kind of mindset." 

While their previous careers prepared them for the grueling work, they said the hardest part of all of it was attending Russian language classes, which they're still learning now so they can eventually communicate with Russian counterparts.  

"The Russian language definitely took me out of my comfort zone," Delaney said. "It's just a lot different than any of the dialects or experiences I've have in my past, so it was the most challenging for sure." 

"I speak a little bit of Spanish and Japanese, but Russian is very different," Douglas said. "There are other hard things, like rock climbing and stuff, but the Russian language is just — man, you have to really put in the effort to understand it." 

"That was one of the harder ones for me," Wittner said. "I've never been naturally gifted with learning foreign languages. … So, thankfully, I have amazing instructors here at [Johnson Space Center] that have helped us get through this and get me to where I need to be." 

Two people talk to each other.  One wears underwater gear.
Andre Douglas
NASA astronaut candidate Andre Douglas prepares for underwater spacewalk training at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, May 8, 2023.
Photo By: James Blair, NASA
VIRIN: 230508-D-D0439-096Y

Two United Arab Emirates astronauts, Nora AlMatrooshi and Mohammad AlMulla, trained with the candidates during those two years and gave the team a chance to bond with international partners, which is an integral part of working at NASA. The agency shares space at Houston's Johnson Space Center with the European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. Delaney said those partners contribute in various ways to the round-the-clock missions.  

"Teamwork is a unifying principle in itself," Delaney said. "We know we're going to be operating where we're relying on each other not just to complete the mission but for our lives." 

After Graduation … Now What?  

Now that they're in the pool of official astronauts, Wittner, Delaney and Douglas are waiting on assignments, which could find them on missions to the International Space Station, the moon, Mars or further deep-space explorations. Until those assignments are doled out, however, they keep busy supporting the behind-the-scenes work. 

"I'm working the pressurized rover, the lunar terrain vehicle, the new space station called Gateway, and then also supporting a lot of the new suit design," Douglas said. "It's given me a really good picture of how a lot of these pieces for the Artemis program are coming together." 

A person out of camera range adjusts a spacesuit on a person who’s standing beside a pool of water.
Jessica Wittner
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jessica Wittner, a NASA astronaut candidate, gets suited up for underwater spacewalk training at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, May 8, 2023.
Photo By: James Blair, NASA
VIRIN: 230508-D-D0439-095Y

"We're in the development and design phases of a lot of different things. There's so much going on in the space industry and NASA right now — all the Artemis developments, getting equipment and development programs set up for equipment going to the moon, and a bunch of commercial entities coming online that we're working with," Wittner said. "There's endless opportunities." 

The astronauts rotate through the various operational, developmental and exploration arenas so they can understand the fundamentals of all ongoing and future missions. 

"It truly is an ultimate team sport," said Delaney, who's supporting day-to-day operations for Expedition 71, the team currently onboard the ISS.  "It's very similar to how we operate in the military — we just want to make sure that everything is aligned and synchronized appropriately for effective execution onboard." 

Douglas agreed.  

"We're one big team. [With] a baseball team, you have designated hitters and you have pitchers, right? And they've got their strengths. So, whatever mission that the office feels I should support, I'm happy to do it," he said.  

Nearly two-dozen people pose with their fists in the air in front of a gate. Behind the gate is a massive rocket launch platform.
Artemis Astronaut Photo-Op
Astronauts and astronaut candidates from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency pose for a photograph in front of NASA’s Artemis I Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft atop the mobile launcher on the pad at Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Aug. 28, 2022.
Photo By: Kim Shiflett, NASA
VIRIN: 220828-O-D0439-078Y

Advice for the Next Class 

NASA is accepting applications for its next class of astronauts through April 14. There are many requirements and a LOT of competition, but these three offered some advice to those applying.  

"To operate as a team and function in a different environment, you need a variety of skillsets to optimize," Delaney said. "Leverage your life experience — any aptitudes for engineering, mechanical, electrical, or something that demonstrates those expeditionary skills and working in austere environments. [Have] good teamwork behaviors and leadership skills." 

"Be ready to talk about some of the things that you're really proud of, because when you're excited in the interview, as you get to that stage, everything that you said and wrote down aligns, and your true character comes out," Douglas said. "You want to try to make sure you're able to grab people's attention right off the bat." 

Wittner enlisted in the Navy 23 years ago, starting as an engine mechanic who essentially swabbed decks for her first assignment. She said the biggest hurdle of her journey was maintaining the drive to reach this dream.  

"I think it's a normal human thing that as your career progresses … it's just kind of natural and normal for you to just go, 'I'm comfortable here. This is a good place to be,'" Wittner said. "Taking that first step out the door again and knowing that you're going into the unknown can be hard. … It's been a long road to get here, but I really truly believe that if you can maintain that drive and find those good mentors, that anybody can make it." 

"They need resilient humans. It's a demanding role, but I think it's extremely rewarding," Delaney said. "It really is the ultimate team sport."

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