Reaching For the Skies - How to become an Astronaut
Becoming an Astronaut – The Facts
Recently, I watched a documentary about the Apollo mission to the moon. Regardless of ones opinion of whether a lunar landing actually took place, the fact is that the likes of Buzz Aldrin were real spacemen, astronauts who went into space and looked down on their World from a distance that very few have had the privilege to do. What strikes me about these individuals is their eloquence with a microphone under their noses and a calm, rational persona that oozes space traveller. What also fascinates me is how they became astronauts; I mean where does’ one start.
Millions of us around the World look at the job of an astronaut slightly removed and somewhat romantically. Some may regard such individuals as chosen military elite. I have certainly never seen an advert stating ‘astronauts wanted, starting salary xxx, self-motivated, flexible, shift hours, able to work at heights within a confined space and minimal oxygen, please apply within’. The notion of actually becoming one is the farthest thought for the everyday young person considering a career, but why not?
So intrigued have I been about the path to becoming an astronaut, that I decided to do some research and found a host of information readily available and thought it might be interesting to those who’s career aspirations are a little higher than the average. These are based largely on NASA requirements.
Basic Job Roles
Pilot Astronaut (Flight Engineer)
Responsible for flying the spacecraft and navigate the space station and may also assume the role of commander, you would also be required to assist with general daily activities and scientific experiments on the space station.
Mission Specialist (Astronaut Researcher)
Required to conduct scientific experiments and perform space walks. Additionally, you would be responsible for monitoring computer systems and general maintenance of the craft/station e.g. hygiene and preparation of food.
Astronaut pay is in-line with government workers of similar level plus various benefits which may be in the region of $40,000 to $80,000 and there is no minimum/maximum age although those selected to-date average around 36 years.
The planning of a space mission is a very costly and lengthy process with hundreds of people involved to support you from start to finish. Your training would be extensive and as the pinnacle member of the team, the mission’s success falls heavily on your shoulders and is dependant on your capabilities. Only the best will do and in a career where applicants far outweigh limited vacancies, the competition is exacting.
There is no straightforward educational path to becoming an astronaut i.e. no dedicated school/university or vocational course with a ‘qualified astronaut’ certificate at the end of it. Selection is made from a diverse pool of people with candidates such as school teachers, doctors, scientists and engineers having been selected. However, you would need the following or equivalent in experience before even considered your application and of the thousands who have applied, less than 400 have ever been selected to-date, including the original seven:
A Bachelor's degree from a recognized university in one of the below:
- Biological science
- Physical science
- A minimum further three years of related progressively responsible professional experience.
Pilot Astronauts also require:
- 1,000 hours of experience in jet aircraft as pilot-in-command
- Flight test experience would be desired
NASA Class I long duration space flight physical examination which includes:
- Distant visual acuity: 20/50 or better uncorrected correctable to 20/20, each eye
- Blood pressure: 140/90 measured in sitting position
- Height: between 64 and 76 inches
Mission Specialists also require:
NASA Class II long duration space flight physical examination which includes:
- Distant visual acuity: 20/100 or better uncorrected correctable to 20/20, each eye
- Blood pressure: 140/90 measured in sitting position
- Height: between 58.5 and 76 inches
Mental and physical Qualities
- Ability to bear huge responsibility
- Determination and dedication to succeed
- Exceptional physical health and powers of endurance
- Nil phobias of working and living within a confined space for long periods
- Exceptional team member qualities and adaptability
- Extremely sound psychological condition
- Unerring self-control and even temperament
- Capacity to cope with stress in emergency situations
- Mature judgement in optimising routines and procedures
Other requirements and attributes
- Being away from home, family and friends for long periods
- Long distance travel on Earth as well as in space
- Ability to Communicate effectively with press, media and the public
- Dedication and focus to cope with years of hard work prior to a space mission
- Anything else you can bring to the table
We are familiar with seeing an astronaut entering into a spacecraft before being jettisoned into deep space. We often see fun pictures of them floating around inside the craft or space station where they appear to hang around for a period of time prior to returning home. Obviously there is a lot more to it and this is what is involved before they can even join a mission.
Initial minimum 2 years training period may include:
- Learning different orbiter systems, ranging from propulsion to environmental
- Basic science (maths, astronomy, physics, geology, meteorology and oceanography)
- Technology (navigation, orbital mechanics and materials processing)
- Spacecraft systems
- Parachute jumping
- Land and sea survival techniques
- Scuba diving
- Swimming tests
- Overcoming high (hyperbaric) and low (hypobaric) atmospheric pressure conditions
- Exposure to micro gravity of space flight
- Flying training (pilot astronauts)
- Flight training (mission specialists)
This training will continue until your selection for a mission.
On selection for a mission a further 10 months training may involve:
- Flight simulation
- Full-scale mock ups of the spacecraft and space station
- Underwater training for space walks
- Simulations for every emergency scenario and contingency
Post-training flight preparation:
- Live spacecraft training
- Further simulations
- Medical tests
- Meetings, discussions and debriefs
It is clear that the job of an astronaut involves immense responsibility and requires years of hard work and dedication. Its attraction is certainly not one of high earnings although having 'previous role - astronaut' on any future job application would put you in good stead. However, it cannot be denied that there a few careers on the planet that offer such an amazing opportunity or provide a similar sense of achievement.