How to Get a Job as an Astronaut

How to Get a Job as an Astronaut

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Don't assume it's impossible.  But you really have to want it, and you might want to keep your options open.

 

Let's get right to the point.  Only a fraction of 1% make it into a space training program.  Of that 1%, all were eminently qualified.  Does that mean it can't be done?  You won't know until you try.  So let's get started.  To begin with, let's get you "eminently qualified."  What does that involve?  Well it means you meet the following physical criteria for most programs:

 

1.    Distant visual acuity: 20/100 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20 each eye.

2.    Blood pressure: Less than 140/90 measured in a sitting position.

3.    Height between 62 and 75 inches



Hey, so far so good.  But as you would suspect they want a little more.


Bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. An advanced degree is desirable. Quality of academic preparation is important.

 

Hmmmm, that's getting a little picky.  But these are NASA specs.  What about ESA and other space agencies?

Bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. An advanced degree is desirable. Quality of academic preparation is important.

  

Uh oh.  Looks like we have a bit of a benchmark here after all of those NASA missions.  But hey, so far I'm still in the running for my trip to Mars or beyond.   Or am I?  If I want to join an ESA mission I need to belong to a country that is part of the European Space Administration.  NASA has its own rules as well as others.  In case you're interested, here are links to various space agencies that are currently hiring: 

 

European Space Agency

Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency

Canadian Space Agency

Russian Federal Space Agency

China National Space Administration

 

Not surprisingly, all of them are looking for a bit more than someone in good shape with a college degree or two. 


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The Right stuff?


One of the most critical considerations beyond brains and brawn is personality.  Space is a high stress environment and the ability of someone to exhibit grace under pressure is critical to any mission's success. 

It comes down to how much of a positive impression you make on the interview panel," said Tom Jones, a former NASA Astronaut who flew on four shuttle missions. "They size you up in an hour and decide if you're a person they and others would like to work with.

 

It's a bit more complex than we think.


Of course if you're signing up for a 4 year mission to Mars they might have a few more questions.  It's why so many space agencies look for people with strong wills and unique character qualities.

I think our crazy, varied backgrounds contribute to our ability to adapt and learn anything quickly, and then assimilate that knowledge into our skill set," said Jeanette Epps, an Astronaut who studied aerospace engineering, worked at Ford Motor Company and took a job with the CIA before joining NASA.

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The Millennial Astronaut

All of the original NASA Astronauts had to be test-pilots based on a mandate from American President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The German scientists developing rockets and capsules actually recommended circus acrobats.  Over time, Eisenhower's instincts proved correct given the intense demands of space travel.  However, a new breed of Astronaut is emerging called the "Mission Specialist."  There are still pilots but as science has entered the adventure equation, scientists have emerged as the new breed of Astronaut.  The qualifications are similar with obvious additional attributes.  According to NASA:

Mission specialist Astronauts work with the commander and the pilot and have overall responsibility for coordinating operations in the following areas: systems, crew activity planning, consumables usage, and experiment/payload operations. Mission specialists are trained in the details of the onboard systems, as well as the operational characteristics, mission requirements/ objectives, and supporting equipment/systems for each of the experiments conducted on their assigned missions. Mission specialists perform extravehicular activities (EVAs), or space walks, operate the remote manipulator system, and are responsible for payloads and specific experiment operations.

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Image credit: R. Lockwood

Qualifications would require you to handle all of the above.  But just because you get hired as an Astronaut doesn't mean you walk onto the next rocket into space. 

According to NASA:

There are two years of basic training ahead in which you are considered an "Astronaut candidate." The candidates receive basic classroom learning about the International Space Station and spaceflight generally.

 

They also become qualified scuba divers, do military water survival training, undergo swimming tests, are exposed to high and low atmospheric pressures, do flights in the "vomit comet" and get media and Russian language training, among other things. [6 Everyday Things that Turn Strange in Weightlessness]

After graduating, many Astronauts are not assigned to a flight for years.

 

They will back up other Astronauts in orbit through serving as a "CapCom" in Mission Control, doing simulated spacewalks in NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and picking up more skills they will need for their time in orbit.

 

They spend time not only at NASA, but also international partners with training facilities (such as Canada, to learn how to operate the station's robotic arm.) All Astronauts also must maintain flight proficiency on T-38 aircraft, flying a certain number of hours per month.

 

Once an Astronaut is selected for a flight, the mission training takes another couple of years. They start by reading textbooks and receive classroom training, then do simulation after simulation to learn the stuff for real. Their training takes place all over the world, both individually and with their crewmates.

Whew!  That sounds like a lot of work.  And that's just for the International Space Station.  A mission to Mars would probably be a bit more complicated.  But some of those missions get to a bigger question that most Astronauts have sometimes been asked... are you prepared to never return to Earth?  If you can answer that one correctly you might have a shot.  Good luck and Godspeed.


Images by: NASA (unless credited)

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