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How to Become an Astronaut: Everything You Need to Know

Exploring space is the stuff of many a kid’s dreams, but what does it take to actually become an astronaut? It should come as no surprise that it takes a lot of hard work and perseverance to join the ranks of NASA’s space travelers. Becoming an astronaut requires years of education and experience, and the application process is notoriously selective. But with enough determination, you may be able to achieve a career in space exploration. Read on to learn how to become an astronaut. 

What’s it like being an astronaut? 

In Greek, the word astronaut roughly translates to “star sailor.” While that’s certainly a glamorous job description, there’s more to being an astronaut than travelling through space. At the moment, much of NASA’s work involves sending astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) to conduct research. Crew members spend their days performing science experiments, in addition to cleaning, maintaining, and repairing equipment aboard the ISS. Missions on the ISS usually last about six months. 

When astronauts aren’t in space, they’re either training to go into orbit or supporting other missions from the ground. For instance, they may work in mission control and communicate with other astronauts in orbit. Other duties include developing the procedures used during spacewalks, helping scientists develop experiments, and performing other jobs in support of the ISS. 

There are also different types of astronauts. Mission specialists conduct experiments, launch satellites, and maintain spacecraft and equipment. Pilot astronauts serve as mission commanders and are responsible for the safety of the crew and spacecraft. Pay level depends on job position and experience level, but annual salaries range between $64,000 and $140,000

Also see: Top 20 highest paying careers to consider

Minimum requirements

If you have your sights set on becoming an astronaut, you’ll most likely be seeking employment with NASA. The emergence of private space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have expanded opportunities for space travel, but NASA remains the best way to get your foot in the door. To be considered for an astronaut position with NASA, applicants must meet the following requirements:

  1. Be a U.S. citizen
  2. Possess a master’s degree* in a STEM field from an accredited institution
  3. Have 2 years of related professional experience OR at least 1,000 hours of flight time 
  4. Pass the NASA astronaut physical test

*The master’s degree requirement can also be met by:

  • 2 years of work toward a doctoral program in a related science, technology, engineering or math field
  • A completed Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree
  • Completion of a nationally recognized test pilot school program.

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How to become an astronaut 

Complete your schooling

Like any profession, the first step towards becoming an astronaut is obtaining the proper education. Since there’s no specific “astronaut major” in college, you have the freedom to shape your education to a certain extent. You should start by establishing a strong math and science foundation in high school, then build on that during your undergraduate years. After earning your bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to obtain a master’s degree in a STEM field. In particular, NASA is looking for candidates with a degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science, or mathematics. Let’s briefly discuss some fields of study that can help launch your career as an astronaut: 

1. Electrical engineering 

Many astronauts study engineering in school, and it’s not hard to see why. Engineers are designers, innovators, and problem-solvers. They can find practical solutions to pressing issues, which is a great skill to have when you’re travelling through space at 17,000 miles per hour. Space shuttles rely heavily on electronic systems, which makes electrical engineering a particularly useful field of study for aspiring astronauts. 

2. Astrophysics

According to NASA, the aim of astrophysics is to “discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars.” Sounds perfect for anyone looking to launch a career in space travel! By studying astrophysics, you’ll learn how to grapple with advanced mathematical and scientific concepts such as quantum mechanics and string theory. 

3. Aeronautics

Studying the science of air travel can also help get your foot in the door with NASA. With a degree in aeronautics, you’ll have a working knowledge of aerodynamics, aircraft design, and flight engineering. Aeronautics students gain valuable skills in mathematics, problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making – all of which are needed to become an astronaut. 

4. Biochemistry

Biochemistry explores how chemical changes affect living organisms, which makes it a valuable field of study for astronaut hopefuls. In space, the human body behaves differently than it does on earth. Weightlessness causes disruptions in absorption and metabolism, which means that astronauts have different nutritional requirements. Biochemists play an important role in ensuring the physical wellbeing of astronauts while they’re in space. 

Also see: Top biology scholarships

5. Geology

A degree in geology is another great starting point for aspiring space travelers. Geologists investigate the physical structure of the earth as well as moons, asteroids, and other planets. Geology is an especially important field of study considering NASA has its sights set on sending humans to Mars. Geologists are needed to study the volcanoes, tectonics, cratering, and massive storms that have shaped the Red Planet’s unique terrain.

Gain related professional experience

After completing your schooling, the next step on your journey toward space is to acquire two years of related professional experience. One way to gain this experience is through teaching, either at the K-12 or college level. Alternatively, you can meet professional qualifications by gaining 1,000 pilot-in-command hours aboard a jet aircraft. Joining the military or becoming a commercial pilot is a popular way to rack up this kind of flight time. In fact, a large number of astronauts begin their careers as pilots. 

Related: How to become a pilot

Apply for a position 

Once you obtain the necessary professional experience, you’ll be ready to apply for an astronaut position. Application procedures vary slightly between civilian applicants and active-duty military applicants. Regardless of how you apply, though, there’s no denying that the competition is fierce. Out of 18,300 applicants in 2017, only 12 people were chosen to make up NASA’s new astronaut class. That amounts to an acceptance rate of 0.07%. 

Once you apply, your qualifications will be reviewed by NASA’s Astronaut Selection Board. A small group of the most highly qualified candidates are invited for interviews at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Out of those interviewed, about half are invited back for second interviews. From that select group, NASA’s astronaut candidates are selected. 

As part of the screening process, applicants must pass NASA’s long-duration space flight physical. The test requires candidates to have 20/20 eyesight (correction allowed), seated blood pressure of 140/90 or below, and be between 5’2” and 6’3” in height. There are no age requirements, but the average age of astronauts is 34 according to NASA. 

Complete the training program

If you’re selected as an astronaut candidate, the next step is to complete the two-year training program. Keep in mind that selection as an astronaut candidate does not guarantee selection as an astronaut. Final selection as an astronaut hinges upon successful completion of the training period. The program consists of both physical training and classroom study. Physical training includes spacewalk skills training, robotics skills training, and aircraft flight readiness training. In the classroom, astronaut candidates study medical procedures, emergency situations, and public speaking. Since crew members on the ISS must be able to communicate with the Russian Mission Control Center, candidates also take Russian language classes. After all that, you’ll be ready to begin work as a fully qualified astronaut!

Other career options 

Becoming an astronaut isn’t the only way to achieve a career in space. There’s actually various jobs related to space exploration. Below we’ve listed a few of the most popular space-related professions: 

    • Aerospace engineers: design and create spacecraft, aircraft, and missiles
    • Atmospheric scientists: study the atmosphere using satellites and radar systems
  • Astronomers: observe objects within the universe such as planets, stars, and galaxies
  • Plasma physicists: study plasmas, which occur naturally both in interplanetary space and in stars
    • Computer hardware engineers: develop computer systems and equipment used to measure activity in outer space or on Earth
    • Electronics engineers: design and maintain equipment in spacecraft and aircraft
  • Aerospace engineering technicians: help engineers design, develop, and test products needed for space exploration 
    • Meteorological technicians: measure weather or climate-related conditions to produce data for meteorologists
    • Photographers: document the progress of space projects by taking photos of important milestones
  • Public relations specialists: keep the public informed about space activities and discoveries
  • Technical writers: work closely with scientists to present complex information in a way that the public can understand 

As you can see, there’s more than one way to achieve a career in space. But if you have your heart set on becoming an astronaut, don’t let the rigorous application process stand in your way. After all, nothing in the world compares to sailing amongst the stars. 

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