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Jasmin Moghbeli, NASA astronaut candidate, dreamed of space

Jasmin Moghbeli was one of 12 chosen from

Jasmin Moghbeli was one of 12 chosen from 18,300 applicants. Credit: NASA / Johnson Space Center / Robert Markowitz

Jasmin Moghbeli got into her first space suit as a sixth-grader at Lenox Elementary School in North Baldwin.

It was then that she learned about Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian cosmonaut who in 1963 became the first woman in space. With her mother’s help she built a primitive space suit, constructed out of white windbreakers and a plastic container that served as the helmet.

“That’s when I decided I wanted to be an astronaut,” Moghbeli, now 33, said. “And everything I’ve learned since has solidified that for me.”

Moghbeli was one of 12 people selected as part of NASA’s newest astronaut class, the administration announced from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. On June 7, she and her new colleagues wore identical blue NASA jumpsuits as they were introduced to the world by the Johnson director of flight operations, Brian Kelly.

Standing in the place where, for decades, astronauts have trained for space exploration, was a surreal experience for Moghbeli.

“It’s hard to describe adequately the feeling when you’ve wanted something since you were a little kid, and it’s something that seems so impossible, and it actually happens,” Moghbeli said.

Moghbeli’s mother, Fereshteh, cheered as Kelly rattled off her daughter’s long list of accomplishments. The Marine major earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering with information technology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School several years later. She was a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, had logged more than 1,600 hours of flight time, and had served three tours in the Middle East and Asia.

“That was the point when it sunk in, that this was real,” Fereshteh Moghbeli, 62, said. “Jasmin’s been through a lot and it felt like this was finally happening.”

Moghbeli was born in Bad Nauheim, Germany, where her parents immigrated to from Tehran shortly after the Iranian Revolution. When Moghbeli was 8 months old, the family moved to Queens, later settling in Baldwin, where Moghbeli’s father, Kamy, who worked in construction, said he found a “big lot in a good school district” and built their home.

From an early age, Moghbeli was ambitious, her parents said. They supported her dream to become an astronaut and one summer sent her to space camp in Alabama. She returned with a replica flight suit that she still has today.

“I think I’ve always had an excitement for exploration,” she said. “I remember being a student back in grade school and learning about the explorers crossing the oceans in their ships. That always fascinated me, and I think space travel is like a modern-day version of that.”

Moghbeli was an excellent student with an affinity for science and math, her former AP Physics teacher, Barbara Riess, said. She was focused, goal-oriented and “always did what she needed to do to achieve what she needed to achieve,” said Riess, 62.

After graduating from Baldwin Senior High School in 2001, Moghbeli studied aerospace engineering at MIT while also competing on the university’s volleyball, basketball and lacrosse teams. She enjoyed the sense of camaraderie cultivated through team sports — something that also drew her to the armed forces, she said.

Since she was young, Moghbeli has had an adventurous streak and an “open-mindedness” that’s attracted her to new experiences, said her brother, Kaveh Moghbeli, 35.

“I think out of the two of us, she’s naturally more brave and courageous than I am. She’s always been that way,” he said, recalling a recent trip they took together to New Zealand. She didn’t think twice about diving off the side of a cliff, tethered to a bungee cord, while he remained safely on land.

But Moghbeli said she still looks up to her older brother, who’s currently completing his residency in internal medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

“He kinda taught me that it’s cool to be smart and hardworking and an active member of society,” she said. “He was a big influence on me.”

Moghbeli joined the Marine Corps upon graduation and spent two years in flight school. She was then sent to Camp Pendleton in California before she was deployed to Afghanistan. She served two more tours as part of Marine Expeditionary Units and later completed the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School to become a helicopter test pilot.

She was performing operational tests on attack helicopters in Yuma, Arizona, when she learned in December 2015 that NASA was accepting applications for its new class of astronaut candidates.

She and 18,300 others sent in their resumes.

“I had thought about applying before and didn’t think I was ready,” Moghbeli said. “I waited until I felt I had the best possible application before applying but had no idea what to expect or whether I’d make it or not.”

She didn’t hear back until August of last year, when she was invited to a three-day interview at Johnson Space Center and returned a few months later for a second round of interviews over the course of a week.

On May 25, after taking a red-eye to North Carolina for a friend’s wedding, she learned that she had been selected.

“I just remember my hands were shaking,” Moghbeli said. “I couldn’t tell you what was going through my head except that I was absolutely excited.”

Moghbeli wasn’t allowed to tell anyone but immediate family until the announcement was made in June. When she called her parents, who were having lunch at a pizzeria at the time, Kamy Moghbeli wept so hard he couldn’t drive home.

“We were just trying to keep calm and not scream,” Fereshteh Moghbeli said. “We couldn’t believe it.”

Kaveh Moghbeli said he wasn’t the least bit surprised.

“She has that really great combination of being very smart, very hardworking and a very pleasant, good-natured person so people are happy to work with her and be around her,” he said, adding that with her background in engineering and her experience as a pilot, she had done everything right to get to this point.

When the new class of candidates was announced — a group that includes a marine biologist, a Harvard-trained medical doctor and several military officers — Moghbeli’s mother joined her in Houston while her father watched with his neighbors in their new home in Delray Beach, Florida, and her brother tuned in while on break from his shift in the ICU.

“We’re very proud. It’s very special to be the first generation in a new country and to have our children doing so well,” Fereshteh Moghbeli said.

Moghbeli will report back to Johnson Space Center Aug. 21 for two years of training and could then be assigned to conduct research on the International Space Station, launch on commercial spacecraft or fly on deep-space exploration missions.

“There’s so many things going on in the horizon,” Moghbeli said. “We’re going deeper than we ever have before. I still have that childlike excitement when I think about it.”


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