It is clear that Anil Menon had a life of great achievement.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, he won national science awards while attending St. Paul’s Academy, then earned a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from Harvard, followed by a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford, followed by a degree in Stanford medicine.
The 45-year-old practiced emergency medicine as a first responder during earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal. He is a US Air Force lieutenant colonel and pilot who flew over 100 sorties in an F-15 fighter jet. He is an expert in wilderness and aerospace medicine and has served as an on-board surgeon for NASA and SpaceX. For fun, he competes in Ironman races and other extreme endurance events.
Today, this high thief, son of immigrant parents from India and Ukraine, is about to take the highest flight of all.
Menon was recently named by NASA as one of 10 new astronaut candidates, selected from over 12,000 applicants. This is the first new class of astronauts named by NASA in four years. Only 360 men and women have been selected as NASA astronauts since the first Mercury Seven in 1959.
The selection of Menon is a tribute to his skills and achievements, but also to his perseverance. He applied four times before to be an astronaut before he was finally accepted.
We spoke to Menon about life on the moon, never giving up, and how growing up in Minnesota shaped his dream of going to space. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Did you always want to be an astronaut?
A: It was a 40 year goal for me. It all started in Minnesota at the Science Museum of Minnesota. They had the Omnitheater there and I saw “The dream is alive.” It was an IMAX movie and there were astronauts exploring space, and I knew as I went to the boundary waters that I loved adventure and exploration. And when I saw that there was a career to explore, I was like “This is the job for me.”
Q: But you also have a medical degree. Why?
A: I knew there was this astronaut named Scott Parazynski. He became a doctor, then an astronaut, and I loved medicine. My mother was injured in a bicycle accident. I thought those doctors in the emergency room at Hennepin County Medical Center were taking so much care of her that I wanted to go into medicine. And I wanted to combine the two and I didn’t know there would be this huge field of space medicine. But I found out when I got into medicine and space and found out he was there.
Q: There is no astronaut candidate class every year. When did you start applying for the program?
A: I started applying in the early 2000s when I was in medical school, and I probably had absolutely no chance of doing so. But what I continued to do was just work to advance professionally. So I did what I loved, and I tried to get better and better.
In medical school, I started to diversify and learn more things and tried to expand my world as much as possible. And I continued to apply. And with each step, I went a little further. In 2008, I got an interview. I had just graduated from residency and had a pilot’s license. And I had done mechanical engineering. And then I applied over the years and got even closer, going through interviews.
But I never gave up. And I think one of the big lessons in my story is to never, ever give up. Dreams – no matter how old you get – they’re still there, there’s always a possibility and, lo and behold, at 45 I have this opportunity, which is really cool.
Q: How does it feel to be selected as an astronaut this time?
A: I’m really excited to be a NASA astronaut now. Missions are even cooler now. Because we plan to go to the moon and stay there now, like actually staying there. And this is where medicine will be extremely important, because people will be there for so long that they will need a doctor to take care of them. And then after that, we are looking to go to Mars. And it’s going to happen in my career, in our life. We get to see that.
Q: So you could go to the moon?
A: It is my sincere hope. Yes, as a NASA astronaut, I hope to be part of the Artemis program it’s going to put a lasting presence on the moon in 2025. And it’s just around the corner. We have to work with our business partners, with the engineers at NASA, to make this a reality and I’m delighted to be a part of it. It turns me on every day.
Q: You were born a few years after the last Apollo mission. What do you think the future of human space exploration should be?
A: I think we should be pushing our limits all the time, every day and never stop doing it. So now what does this mean? It means going to the moon, not just to go there but to stay there. Having people living there, being able to call home from the moon, then using that knowledge plus the ISS [International Space Station] seek and push to Mars, and keep pushing our limits. And to do so for several reasons. First, it’s science fiction come true. It inspires people like me when I was a kid. It is important for all of us to dream bigger in the future.
Q: How did growing up in Minnesota get you to where you are?
A: Minnesota is the best training ground for becoming an astronaut. It totally shaped my point of view. I grew up in Minneapolis as a city kid, but as you know all the lakes are covered in ice and you skate. You are outside all the time. It just pushes people out into the environment. And I would spend a few summers in the Boundary Waters canoe area, doing camps there.
It made me think how wonderful it is, and it becomes a part of my soul. So when I got into medicine I thought, “How to do medicine with less resources like in the boundary water canoe area.” It brought me to wild medicine. And it turns out that wild medicine isn’t much different from space medicine.