Table of Contents,
- 1 Overview
- 2 What is an astronaut?
- 3 What Astronauts Do in Space and on Earth?
- 4 Tips for Training
- 5 Types of astronauts
- 6 Requirements for astronauts
- 7 Citizenship
- 8 Education
- 9 Professional experience requirements
- 10 Physical requirements
- 11 Educational Requirements
- 12 How Long It Takes to Become an Astronaut and What It’s Like to Be One
- 13 How Much Does an Astronaut Make?
- 14 1. Create a plan that includes school and experience
- 15 2. Get in peak physical shape
- 16 3. Apply for NASA’s candidate selection
- 17 4. Train for flight
- 18 Learn How to Qualify to Be a NASA Astronaut
- 19 What Is NASA’s Astronaut Corps?
- 20 What Are the Qualifications Needed to Become an ASCAN?
- 21 What Is NASA Astronaut Training Like?
- 22 Frequently asked questions about astronauts
U.S. astronaut Jessica Meir of NASA gives a thumbs-up after landing aboard the Soyuz MS-15 capsule with two other ISS Expedition 62 crew members in Kazakhstan.
If you dream of exploring faraway places, there are few journeys more fun to imagine than the prospect of space travel.
Escaping Earth’s orbit and seeing the planet from a distance is such an overwhelming experience that it is hard to come up with an adjective that is adequate to describe how it feels, according to retired astronaut Col. Mike Mullane, author of “Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut.”
As a 12-year-old, he watched the Sputnik launch, and that was when he decided to work in the space industry and to try his best to become an astronaut. “All my energy was focused,” he says, adding that aspiring astronauts should “be tenacious.”
His son, Patrick Mullane – author of “The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing Up an Astronaut’s Kid in the Glorious 80s” – emphasizes that becoming an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, is so difficult that no one should count on being able to do it. There’s a lot of luck involved in securing such a coveted job, he says.
When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969, kids across the U.S. had stars in their eyes, dreaming of a career that had never before existed: They wanted to become astronauts.
A lot has changed in the past 50 years. Even though a career as a YouTube star has surpassed astronauts in popularity, many kids still want to explore space.
Of course, becoming an astronaut isn’t easy. For this career path, you really only have one potential place of employment: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, more commonly known as NASA.
NASA doesn’t maintain a massive workforce when it comes to astronauts. Currently, 48 active astronauts are employed by NASA, and fewer than 600 people have gone into space in the past 50 years. But if you’ve got the dream and enough determination, you just might stand a chance at joining the ranks of these real-life adventurers.
Being an astronaut is a highly competitive selective profession. Every year, qualified candidates compete in a rigorous application process to fill a very limited number of spots. In this article, we explore what an astronaut does, how astronauts train, career requirements and how to become one.
What is an astronaut?
The term “astronaut” translates to “sailor among stars.” An astronaut is a specially trained and equipped person who travels into space as part of a space program. Since 1959, astronauts have been a part of the United States space program National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA.
NASA uses “astronaut” to describe any crew member aboard a NASA spacecraft or members of the NASA Astronaut Corps. NASA selects astronauts from a diverse pool of applicants with a wide variety of backgrounds. From the thousands of applications received, only a few are chosen for the intensive astronaut candidate training program.
Though there is no age requirement, U.S. astronauts are usually 26 to 46 years old with an average age of 34. The youngest accepted candidate is a 16-year-old girl training for a mission to Mars.
Early U.S. astronauts were military personnel who had experience flying jet airplanes and backgrounds in engineering. In 1964, scientist-astronauts were added, requiring a doctorate in medicine, engineering, physics, chemistry or biology. Astronauts are typically trained by military branches, such as the Air Force or Space Force, or civilian space agencies.
NASA astronauts are still required to have a master’s degree but the field has been opened to hire civilian teachers, doctors, journalists and others. Commercial astronauts are a recent addition as privately funded space flights are on the rise.
What Astronauts Do in Space and on Earth?
Astronauts play a crucial role in NASA’s scientific research.
“Our job is to work together with people from all over the world to build vehicles and spacecraft to safely live in the space environment to explore the Universe,” Melvin wrote in an email. “We do cutting edge biological and material research that can save lives on Earth as well as observe the Earth and monitor changes as we fly around the planet every 90 minutes.”
Former astronauts say that they were constantly collaborating with their colleagues during their time as astronauts. They note that a team spirit is crucial for anyone who wants to get this type of position, since NASA screens out job candidates who convey arrogance. The humility to recognize what one does not know is also vital for this job, as is the ability to quickly learn new skills.
Former NASA astronaut Charles Camarda says one of the most exciting aspects of becoming an astronaut was getting to use some of the space technology he and his colleagues had designed in a laboratory.
“We very rarely get to experience how this is used in space, how it is tested in space and so, for me, this was an engineer’s dream,” says Camarda, a research engineer who has bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in engineering.
Being an astronaut is exciting for anyone who likes to design and build technology because the job involves testing the limits of what technology can do, says Camarda, who previously served as a senior adviser for innovation at NASA. He notes that the extreme environment in space forces engineers to be creative. Lack of gravity in outer space poses significant challenges when performing everyday tasks.
An astronaut’s work is not restricted to when he or she is in space, according to NASA. “When astronauts are not flying on a mission or training for a mission, they support other missions,” the NASA website states. “There are many jobs on the ground required to support the design, preparation, training and flying of a space mission.”
Stephanie Schierholz, a public affairs officer for the human exploration and operations branch of NASA, says that preparing and recovering from missions is a time-consuming process.
“On Earth, astronauts participate in training to ensure proficiency for their missions,” she explained in an email. “Typically, astronauts spend years training for a mission, then spend about six months aboard the International Space Station during a mission, and spend time reconditioning afterward.”
Schierholz notes that astronauts typically conduct science experiments during their missions. “The space station is an orbiting laboratory, and the astronauts aboard typically support about 250 different research investigations during their six-month mission,” she says.
Tips for Training
Astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield has shared some tips for astronauts in training. He recommends that any astronaut entering training should:
- Ignore the media’s representations of astronauts (i.e. movies)
- Have patience while working up from being an astronaut candidate
- Train for emergency landings in any type of environment
- Consider your body to be a system and learn about how it works
- Focus on leadership and how to bond as a team
- Have a strong desire to know everything, because once you’re in space, you can’t rely on anyone else but yourself to know and fix things
Mission Duties Of An Astronaut
Once you’ve completed training, you must then be selected for a mission.
Mission duties may include:
- Commanding decisions
- Piloting spacecraft
- Conducting experiments
- Maintaining the spacecraft
- Providing medical and emergency services to crew members
- Walking in space to maintain the spacecraft
- Operating a space station
- Controlling robotic arms and machinery
- Exercising daily
- Working as a team to complete tasks
Types of astronauts
There are three categories of astronauts with NASA. They include:
- Astronaut candidates: These individuals have been selected for the NASA Astronaut Corps and are in training at Johnson Space Center.
- Active astronauts: Active astronauts are those who have completed astronaut candidate training and are eligible for flight assignment.
- Management astronauts: These astronauts are NASA employees but are no longer eligible for flight assignments.
Requirements for astronauts
To ensure that the right candidates are selected, the requirements for astronaut positions are rigorous.
Astronaut candidates must be U.S. citizens. Dual citizenship is permitted.
Astronaut applicants must have a master’s degree in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) program from an accredited university. That requirement can be met with 36 semester hours toward a doctoral program in a STEM field, such as a science, technological or mechanics degree; a completed Doctor of Medicine (M.D) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree; or completion of a nationally recognized test pilot school program.
Professional experience requirements
Astronaut candidates must have at least two years or related professional experience after obtaining their degree or possess at least 1,000 hours as the pilot in command on jet aircraft. They also must pass the NASA long-duration flight astronaut physical.
Astronaut candidates must meet several physical requirements, including:
- Eyesight: Distant and near visual acuity correctly to 20/20 in each eye. Glasses are acceptable.
- Blood pressure: Resting blood pressure of 140/90 or better
- Height: Typically between 62 inches (5 feet, 2 inches) and 75 inches (6 feet, 3 inches) tall
- Physical fitness: Be in good physical shape according to age and gender.
Astronauts must fit into a spacesuit and spacecraft, so specific physical limits may be set for height, weight and body size.
Both civilian and military personnel can apply to become what NASA calls astronaut candidates. All astronaut candidates must be U.S. citizens and must have bachelor’s degrees from accredited institutions in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics. All candidates must also be able to pass the NASA long-duration space flight physical, which has minimum requirements for visual acuity, blood pressure and standing height. Other requirements are based on the astronaut position, as outlined below:
- Non-pilot candidates must have at least three years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for experience (a master’s degree equals one year of experience, a doctoral degree equals three years of experience). Teaching experience, including experience at the K-12 levels, is considered to be qualifying experience for the astronaut candidate position.
- An advanced degree is also desirable for pilot candidates. More importantly, Pilot candidates must have at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Flight test experience is highly desirable.
How Long It Takes to Become an Astronaut and What It’s Like to Be One
“Astronaut candidates undergo a training and evaluation period lasting approximately two years, during which time they will participate in the basic Astronaut Candidate training program, which is designated to develop the knowledge and skills required for formal mission training upon selection for a flight,” Schierholz explains.
Astronaut candidates must pass a swim test and subsequently become scuba certified to prepare them for spacewalk training, she adds.
According to Schierholz, astronauts are paid at either a GS-13 or GS-14 level. That translates to annual salaries ranging from $104,898 to $161,141. An astronaut’s precise salary depends on his or her credentials and experience.
Bravery is necessary to choose this career path, experts say. “Living in space is not without risk,” Schierholz emphasizes. “Human spaceflight is risky, and spacewalks are amongst the riskiest activities astronauts undertake during a mission.”
Camarda says astronauts tend to be self-driven. “If I have to think of creative ways to inspire people to become astronauts, those are the wrong people. Those are not the people you want for the job. They have to have that inspiration from within.”
Astronauts are the sort of people who are emboldened when others tell them something is impossible and who are eager to pursue moonshot ambitions, Camarda says.
If you want to become an astronaut, it will take dedication and time.
All in all, it takes about a decade to do so. Here’s how that breaks down: It takes about four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, two more years to earn a master’s degree, two years for professional experience, and a final two years for mandatory basic training.
How Much Does an Astronaut Make?
The Federal Government’s General Schedule dictates the salary for astronauts for grades GS-12 to GS-13. GS-12’s salary starts at $65,140 whereas a GS-13 can earn up to $100,701 annually.
How to become an astronaut
If you want to become an astronaut, take these steps:
1. Create a plan that includes school and experience
Start with a career plan. Astronauts can fall into one of two categories: military or civilian. Based on the requirements above, both military and civilian astronauts should have graduate degrees in technical academics like biological physical science, science, computer science or engineering.
If you take the military route, you will be poised to complete your education through the military. Higher education courses are offered through several federal programs, such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill, or educational institutions like the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Civilian applicants may apply after a master’s degree in one of the above-mentioned programs, hold a medical degree or spend two years as a doctoral student in a science, technology, engineering or math field.
After you’ve achieved a degree, you will either need relevant work experience or pilot hours. Another benefit of going into the astronaut program after joining the military is the military can account for your experience and education. The majority of astronaut pilots come from military backgrounds where they log hours of training and completing missions.
2. Get in peak physical shape
Astronauts are required to meet rigorous physical demands, so they must stay in shape. If you are preparing to be an astronaut, you should make health and fitness a priority in your daily routine to prepare yourself for the demands of the job and physical screening requirements.
3. Apply for NASA’s candidate selection
Once you’re sure you can meet physical, educational and experience requirements, apply for NASA’s candidate selection. The application review process can typically take up to 60 days, per NASA’s website, so do not be alarmed if you don’t hear back right away. Astronaut positions with NASA are highly competitive so make sure you have done your best in all tests and screenings.
4. Train for flight
If you are selected as an astronaut candidate, you will need to complete comprehensive mission training before you enter a flight mission. Basic training takes two years, is mostly classroom-based and includes things like learning about space stations, vehicles and equipment. Astronauts must also complete survival training outside the classroom, similar to military training.
In the second phase of training, the mission is selected and astronauts are paired with veteran astronauts. New astronauts are grouped with their more experienced counterparts to learn how to launch a mission successfully, pre-launch activities, entry into orbit and more.
Advanced training occurs when astronauts receive crew and mission assignments. It lasts 10 months and involves training for your specific role as part of the larger team.
Learn How to Qualify to Be a NASA Astronaut
New astronauts are selected and trained based on NASA’s particular needs. Civilians and military personnel qualify, but NASA’s astronaut requirements are strict.
- What Is an ASCAN?
- What Is NASA’s Astronaut Corps?
- What Are the Qualifications Needed to Become an ASCAN?
- What Is NASA Astronaut Training Like?
- Learn More About Chris Hadfield’s MasterClass
Short for “astronaut candidate,” ASCAN is the designation given to those chosen to undergo NASA astronaut training. ASCAN selection comes at the end of a highly competitive search process. It takes years of work to get in the door to astronaut training, but that hard-won acceptance is actually just the beginning.
What Is an ASCAN?
The astronaut personality we often see portrayed in movies is an overly dramatized version of the type of person who is actually trusted to go to space. NASA astronauts need to have cool heads and be able to calmly execute highly difficult tasks under extremely stressful situations.
As of 2019, 339 men and women have been selected as ASCANs across 20 NASA astronaut classes. Of these, around 60% have come from the military service (like the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy or U.S. Marine Corps), while civilian candidates have been scientists, engineers, doctors, and schoolteachers.
What Is NASA’s Astronaut Corps?
Based at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the NASA Astronaut Corps is the branch of NASA responsible for selecting and training NASA astronauts to serve on NASA space flights.
- 1. Beginning with the first astronaut class in 1959, the NASA astronaut corps has supplied crew for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs.
- 2. Currently, the NASA astronaut corps is focused on training crews for test flights and eventual missions on the International Space Station (ISS). Learn more about the ISS here.
- 3. Future training will also help build and crew NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which will be capable of carrying crew members beyond Earth’s orbit—including to Mars and near-Earth asteroids.
- 4. Future training may also focus on training and preparing crew for missions to the International Space Station aboard commercial spacecraft, including the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, which is being made as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program.
What Are the Qualifications Needed to Become an ASCAN?
According to NASA, new astronauts are selected and trained based on the space agency’s needs at the time. Both civilian and military personnel are eligible to become NASA astronauts.
Qualifications for ASCANs fall into two general buckets:
- 1. Candidates must meet minimum educational and experience requirements
- 2. Candidates must pass the minimum physical requirements for long-duration spaceflight
The minimum physical requirements for long-duration spaceflight are:
- 1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.
- 2. At least three years of relevant professional experience or 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time aboard a jet aircraft. Candidates may also substitute an advanced degree for the experience. For example, teaching at the K-12 level is considered a relevant experience.
- 3. Candidates also need to meet certain minimum standards for eyesight, blood pressure, and height.
What Is NASA Astronaut Training Like?
ASCANs study for two years before they even qualify as rookie NASA astronauts. Astronauts need to know everything about everything that happens onboard a spacecraft.
- 1. ASCANs cover everything from how rockets work to weather patterns, geology, electronics repair, and medical procedures.
- 2. Survival training is a necessary part of astronaut preparation. In an emergency, a spaceship may have to undock from the International Space Station quickly and could end up landing anywhere on Earth. Since roughly 70% of our planet is water, ASCANs must learn how to use all the safety equipment in the event of a splashdown.
- 3. Astronauts similarly need to train to survive in the Arctic and deserts. However, survival training isn’t just about preparing for emergency landings—it also helps a crew evolve and bond as a team, with mutual trust and respect under stress.
- 4. Astronauts must also develop expertise in the human body and how it works, in order to properly conduct medical experiments and be ready to handle health emergencies on the ISS. ASCANs need to develop skills needed to deal with a range of injuries, from practicing on cadavers to treating eye injuries and burns, and on to intubating, stitching and administering an IV.
Whether you’re a budding astronautical engineer or simply want to become more informed about the science of space travel, learning about the rich and detailed history of human space flight is essential to understanding how space exploration has advanced. In Chris Hadfield’s MasterClass on space exploration, the former commander of the International Space Station provides invaluable insight into what it takes to explore space and what the future holds for humans in the final frontier. Chris also talks about the science of space travel, life as an astronaut, and how flying in space will forever change the way you think about living on Earth.
Frequently asked questions about astronauts
- How much are astronauts paid?
The pay of an astronaut will depend on your employment status in the military or expertise as a civilian astronaut. If you are a member of the military, you will not receive “pay” as an astronaut. You are paid according to your military rank. Civilian astronauts are considered government employees and salaries are based on the federal General Schedule pay scales for grades GS-13 through GS-15. A GS-13 can earn up to $103,309 per year while a GS-14 can earn $$122,077, according to FederalPay.org. The top-level GS-15 salary is $143,598 per year.
- How long does it take to become an astronaut?
Approximately 10 years. It breaks down to four years for college, two years for a master’s degree, two years of professional experience and then two years in the NASA Astronaut Corps.
- Is flying experience necessary?
Flying experience is not required, but buying any flight experience, military or private, is beneficial. Obtaining 1,000 hours of piloting a jet aircraft meets NASA’s “professional experience” requirement. Jet aircraft experience is usually obtained through the military.
- How do I apply to be an astronaut?
Active-duty military personnel and civilians must also submit their application through USAJOBs. Military personnel also are required to notify their commanders of their interest in the space program.
- What are some tips to increase the chances of being selected as an astronaut candidate?
- Earn one or more advanced degrees in aerospace-related engineering/technology fields
- Teach or work in an engineering/technology field for a few years
- Learn Russian
- Earn scuba certification and experience
- Earn emergency medical technician (EMT) training
How many years does it take to become an astronaut?
The equivalent of ten years.
Is it hard to become an astronaut?
Being an astronaut requires a lot of work.
How long does it take to become an astronaut pilot?
The NASA Astronaut Corps for two years after four years of education, two years of master’s study, and two years of professional experience.
How much do astronauts get paid?
Their pay can rise to $161,141 annually.
How to become an astronaut for spacex?
Be a citizen of the United States. possess a master’s degree from an approved institution in a STEM subject, such as engineering, biology, physics, computer science, or mathematics.
How to become an astronaut in nasa?
For NASA astronauts, a Master’s degree in a technical discipline (STEM) is required.
What to study to become an astronaut?
A certification in astronomy.
How to become an astronaut if you’re not american?
You must be a citizen of the United States to be astronaut programme.
How to become an astronaut for kids?
Astronauts must undergo two years of continuous training, Citizens of the United States, to work for NASA, Every two years, NASA chooses potential astronaut candidates.
Physical requirements to be an astronaut?
You must be between 149cm and 193cm tall. And between the weights of 50 and 95 kilogrammes.
How hard is it to become an astronaut?
Two years of mandatory basic training in addition to six years of education and two years of professional experience.