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Duties Of An Astronaut And Application Process

Updated on May 3, 2016
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.


Test Pilots and New Astronauts

The US Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook (OO) site and handbook has not caught up with the emerging space industries yet, since it does not list "Astronaut" as a job, as previous editions provided.

The OO will need to do add th hob of astronaut in the near future, because SpaceX already has a schedule of several dozen manned commercial flights listed from 2012 through 2017 (That's just as of June 2012).

In addition, as of June 11, 2012 NASA had openings for 15 astronaut candidates and had already received 6,000 applications.

SpaceX achievements are just the beginning of NASA's Commercial Crew, which began to form in the 2000s. Many individuals through that US space flight was over when the last shuttle landed, by they had not been aware of the Commercial Crew of companies. However, SpaceX delivered a replacement for the US Space Shuttle in early 2014 and other companies are offering their own designs for consideration.

The job entry for Test Pilot was eliminated, but the job of testing spacecraft will take on other titles in the future.

In the 1950s, some of the best test pilots in this country joined the first classes of astronauts. Just sixty years later in the 2010s, Aerospace Engineers (AEs) test spacecraft and some of these AEs will likely join the new classes of astronauts forming in private companies and in the NASA-Private Sector partnership established in 2011.

Aerospace and Avionics Technicians will also be needed, so some astronauts will be involved in aerospace and the specialty tasks of various branches of engineering and possess academic certifications from Associates to PhD. Electrical Engineering is important to space flight, for instance, and several US astronauts have earned PhD degrees in this discipline in the past.

Test Pilot Chuck Yeager with his X-1. First pilot to break the sound barrier.
Test Pilot Chuck Yeager with his X-1. First pilot to break the sound barrier.

What Is An Aerodynamicist Astronaut?

A New Career: Aerodynamicist

A new aerospace related career title for the 2010s is an occupation that takes on advanced duties similar to test pilot: the Avionics Engineer. Another such new job profession is Aerodynamicist.

These two positions position may enable a qualified job candidate to become a private sector astronaut.

Sample Qualifications for Aerodynamicist from Scaled Composites job listings:

In General:

  • Knowledge of aircraft sizing, performance, and stability & control.
  • Applicant should have a complete understanding of fluid dynamic technical principles, theories, concepts and CFD design/analysis methods.

Tasks, noninclusive:

  • Performance analysis, stability & control work, basic aircraft sizing, CFD grid generation, aerodynamic and propulsion CFD design, analysis of internal and external flow and post-processing of CFD solutions.
  • Must complete a variety of conceptual and preliminary design CFD studies in a thorough, imaginative, and practical manner, as well as document and present results.
  • Familiarity with aero tools including: Fluent, vortex lattice codes, DATCOM, Hoerner, and airfoil design tools is desired.


  • Mandatory BS in Aerospace Engineering. MS is a plus.
  • A minimum of three years directly related aircraft work experience required.
  • Pilot, aircraft homebuilding, rapid prototyping, and hands-on experience with composites part fabrication and assembly processes are a strong plus. (Note: As an astronaut, many candidates will likely require a pilot's license and a number of flight hours.)
  • DOD Secret Clearance is a strong plus.

It is clear that certain of the aerospace related occupations will require substantial education, training, and experience.

Who Is The NASA Astronaut?

Previous/Current "NASA Astronaut" Requirements and Duties

It is feasible that NASA may continue to recruit and train astronauts for its private sector partners, as least in the first years of partnership.

College Degree Requirement - At least a Bachelors in any of:

  1. Engineering
  2. Biological science
  3. Physical science
  4. Mathematics
  5. Clinical Psychology, Physiological Psychology, or Experimental Psychology

An advanced degree of MS or PhD is a plus.

Mandatory Experience:

  • At least 3 years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience OR at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft.
  • An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for experience as follows: master’s degree = 1 year of experience, doctoral degree = 3 years of experience.

Physical Requirements:

  • Must pass the space flight physical.
  • Must have distant and near visual acuity: Must be correctable to 20/20, each eye.
  • Blood pressure not to exceed 140/90 measured in a sitting position.
  • Standing height between 62 and 75 inches (5' 2" to 6' 3").

Job Duties Aboard the ISS:

  1. Assembly and on-orbit operations of the ISS, including extravehicular activities (EVA), robotics operations via remote manipulator system, experiment operations, and onboard maintenance tasks.
  2. Use of detailed knowledge of the ISS systems and operational characteristics, mission requirements and objectives, and supporting systems and equipment for each experiment on their assigned missions.
  3. Performance in Long-Duration Missions of 3 to 6 months, each mission training to take 2 to 3 years.
  4. Extensive travel, long periods away in International nations, and flights on the Russian Soyuz vehicle.

Many of the four men and four women in the NASA astronaut class of 2013 possess multiple advanced educational degrees. These people are training to travel to Mars for exploration and colonization.

For The Near Future: Warp Speed In Development Stage

Private Sector Partnerships and Leadership

NASA completed a massive amount of preparatory work before the final launch of the last active US Space Shuttle during Independence Week 2011. Immediately afterward, private space flight pushed forward to take the place of our space shuttles within the NASA Commercial Crew. By May 2012, SpaceX had docked a ship with the International Space Station and signed additional contracts for transport of cargo and crews.

The private sector will consistently make changes to the old job descriptions and qualifications for Astronaut and create new occupations as needed.

Mining Engineering, Surveying, Architecture

Some astronauts will need degrees in Mining Engineering, Surveying, Architecture, and similar, to allow them to work in engineering and engineering technologies in near-Earth orbit. These individuals will work either on ships traveling to asteroids near Earth or in installations from which they will control the activities of unmanned vehicles and the mining equipment that will offload from them onto these asteroids.

These projects will first occur under the supervision of a partnership among Google alumni, James Cameron and others, who formed a group in 2012 to begin space mining.

Initial site surveys on asteroids and the first mineral extractions will likely be done with the help of computer controlled cameras and geological simulation software, followed by the use of remote controlled mining machinery. Information Technology will be a foundation discipline in this work as well.

Moon Exploration

Earth's moon became the target for renewed exploration beginning in 2013 a contest held by Google.

The first new Lunar Landers were ready for the moon in early 2013 in the Google LunarX Prize. From 2018 - 2025, we will see additional unmanned landings on Mars and the first manned space flight to that planet. Next will come mining of the Asteroid Belt beyond Mars.

Other private companies plan to operate tours beyond the Asteroid Belt to the outer planets. Preparing humans for long-term space travel will require physical and mental training and a contingent of Earth-side and traveling medical personnel. In fact, Travel Nursing will be kicked up a notch as a popular profession before mid-century.

Many astronauts of the past have already possessed degrees in Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, so logic says that additional engineering specialties will be used and a range of engineering technicians will be required in these projects as well.

Commercial Space Stations And Mars Habitats

Living and working accommodations in space between Earth and the Moon, on or near Mars, and near the Asteroid Belt were on the drawing board since the beginning of the 21st Century. Habitat contests like the Google LunarX Prize for moon landers were established to spark interest in the private sector business arena and among graduate students.

These types of prizes were a success in spurring the creation of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo faster, more efficiently, and with greater safety than previously managed in the US Shuttle Program. These prizes have resulted in moon landers ready to go in early 2013 instead of late 2015. Space habitats will likely be ready faster than expected as well.

The Bigelow Commercial Space Station was the first to be built as a prototype on Earth.

Message From James Cameron on Moon 2.0


Bigelow Aerospace Space Stations

Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX have their own partnership to design, manufacture, and operate space stations and spacecraft in the 2010s.

Th Bigelow-SpaceX partnership involves providing transportation via the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to near-Earth orbit space station habitats provided by Bigelow Aerospace. The target market is the International customer, outside of the USA and largely in China and Japan. At the same time, SpaceX perfected its Dragon 2 spacecraft in early 2014 to replace the US Space Shuttle that became obsolete several years previously.

The BA 330 by Bigelow is an inflatable living environment of 330 cubic meters that will support six adults. Another model is called Sundancer. Bigelow will launch and connect two or more BA 330s into orbit and rent them to national space agencies, private companies, and universities for work and living space. Bigelow also plans a line of space hotels based on the BA 330 or other modular spaces.

First Station Module, Experimental, in place 2011 - 2013

Tiangong 1, meaning "Heavenly Place."
Tiangong 1, meaning "Heavenly Place." | Source

Chinese Space Station Not Alone

The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft returned to Earth with its three astronauts in late June, 2012. This is only the 4th manned space mission for China, but it included the country's first female astronaut, the 33-year-old fighter pilot called Liu Yang.

With the end of the International Space Station in 2020, China plans to launch their own in 2020, being the only station in orbit in the 2020s - except for the Bigelow commercial stations, which the Chinese government may not have been expecting.

Other nations will likely be renting those, so China will not be the only nation in orbit, not the only one with space influence as other nations mine near-Earth asteroids and travel to Mars.

Astronauts Work In Space Mining

Astronaut Positions On Mining Expeditions

From a vantage point in the 2010s, it is easy to see that the standard spacecraft to be employed through mid-century will be able to transport a five-person or a seven-person space crew. Additional engineers, technicians, and interns will be in increasingly high demand to make this happen.

US Spacecraft Crew positions, in order of importance:

  1. Commander
  2. Pilot/Flight Engineer
  3. Mission Specialists
  4. Payload Specialists

Commercial space flights may list a more diverse set of positions, although a commander and a pilot likely will be necessary.

Mission Specialists for the former NASA/US Space Shuttle: Coordinated with the commander and pilot and had responsibility for operations in:

  • Systems
  • Crew activity planning
  • Consumables usage
  • Experiment/payload operations

Payload Specialists for the former NASA/US Space Shuttle: First pick was from among current Mission Specialists. Otherwise, there were individuals besides NASA astronauts that were assigned specialized on-board duties. They were included in crew sizes greater than 5. In commercial spaceflight, this position may be retained, eliminated or expanded in duties.

© 2012 Patty Inglish MS


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