While many applicants may be familiar with the physical challenges and technical qualifications required, the psychological criteria are usually less understood.  Certain facets of our psychological makeup are inherently ingrained, but awareness is the first step to change. Recognizing the traits that space agencies are looking for can guide individuals in accentuating their positive attributes and curbing the less favorable ones.

Common psychological frameworks used in the initial assessments

In the early stages of selection, candidates are often asked to fill out computer-based psychology and personality questionnaires. A model called Temperament Structure Scales is often used to evaluate the applicants’ responses. In that model, they are looking for:

  • High sense of purpose and capability
  • High motivation and drive
  • High emotional sensitivity
  • High empathy and attentiveness
  • Balanced capacity for order and control
  • Balanced levels of extroversion or introversion
  • Balanced risk-taking and safety consciousness
  • Medium to low aggressiveness
  • Low dominance tendency
  • Low emphasis on luxury and comfort

Another framework used by many agencies (as well as many other employers around the world) is the NEO Personality Inventory which assesses candidates on the following traits:

  • Openness: A measure of one's willingness to embrace new experiences, ideas, and values.
  • Conscientiousness: Indicates a person's level of organization, dependability, and self-discipline.
  • Extraversion: Reflects how outgoing and socially interactive an individual is.
  • Agreeableness: Assesses one's propensity for cooperation, kindness, and consideration of others.
  • Neuroticism: Evaluates the degree to which someone experiences negative emotions like anxiety and mood swings.

A 2011 study on ESA astronauts found that astronauts typically score low for neuroticism (N), moderately for extroversion (E), moderately to high for openness (O), high for agreeableness (A), and high for conscientiousness (C).

Model for in-person applied assessments

Later in the selection process, candidates are presented with different tasks designed specifically to assess their psychological traits.  One of the most-used frameworks for these assessments is NASA’s Human Behavior & Performance Competency Model. This model defines desirable characteristics as:

  • Self-management: Recognizing personal abilities and understanding their impact on others.
  • Communication: Clear and concise expression, receptivity to feedback, and attentive listening.
  • Cross-cultural awareness: Valuing and utilizing knowledge of other cultures to prevent potential issues.
  • Teamwork and group living: Prioritizing cooperative efforts and valuing team needs.
  • Leadership: Efficient task allocation based on skillsets and supporting other leaders.
  • Conflict management: Staying calm, focusing on problem-solving, and ensuring closure.
  • Situational awareness: Evaluating the implications of decisions while monitoring surroundings.

Below are examples of what would be considered undesirable characteristics:

  • Lack of motivation or understanding of spaceflight culture
  • Propensity for aggression or conflict
  • Exhibiting anxiety, nervousness, or emotional instability
  • Shirking responsibility for one's actions
  • Ego-driven approach to tasks and interactions
  • Deficiencies in critical thinking or task performance

Knowing which psychological traits space agencies value can significantly aid candidates in their preparation. For a more in-depth look at how these traits are evaluated and further tips on preparation, check out the article on testing methodologies. Your journey into space starts with understanding yourself.

For more details on how the tests are conducted and recommendations for how to do your best, see Assessing the Astronaut Mind: Testing Methodologies and Preparation Tips.