Lorelei Yang
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words

Many children dream of becoming an astronaut. Some even carry that hope into adulthood. The idea of traveling the cosmos is an attractive one, but you’ll have to meet NASA’s rigorous standards, first. Here’s what you have to do to become an astronaut. 

What does an astronaut do?

An astronaut (a word that literally means  "sailor among the stars") is someone trained to go into space. They're trained to perform a range of space exploration and space science activities, including how to pilot and/or travel in a spacecraft, how to work in space, and how to perform activities  related to human space exploration (such as performing experiments and collecting observational data).

Today, there are two types of astronauts selected for space flights:

  • Mission specialist astronauts: these astronauts are subject matter experts with expertise in useful disciplines (e.g., engineering, science, or medicine). In collaboration with pilots, they conduct experiments, launch satellites, or maintain spacecraft and equipment during missions. Their subject-specific knowledge is the primary asset they bring to a mission.

  • Pilot astronauts: these astronauts serve as space shuttle and international space station pilots and commanders. They're mission commanders, which means they’re responsible for the crew, mission, mission success, and the flight’s safety. Their ability to safely pilot the spacecraft and ensure everyone’s safety is the primary asset they bring to a mission.

Lately, NASA has put  an increasing emphasis on "science astronauts." This is because they want astronauts who can multitask on board, can perform experiments, maintain complex equipment, and bring applicable expertise to push the boundaries of science performed in space. Because of this shift, an increasing number of today’s astronauts have STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees and backgrounds.

Steps

1. Meet three basic requirements.

According to NASA, U.S.  citizens who want to be considered for astronaut positions must meet three qualifications: 

  1. Hold a bachelor's degree in a STEM degree (e.g., engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science, or mathematics)

  2. Have at least three years of related post-college professional OR at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft

  3. Pass the NASA long-duration astronaut physical and have distant and near visual acuity that's correctable to 20/20 for each eye

2. Apply for the Astronaut Candidate position.

If a candidate fulfills these three requirements, they should apply for the position of Astronaut Candidate, which takes applications on an as-needed basis. At present, NASA is not accepting applications for this program — but those who are interested should keep their eyes out for when the agency does start recruiting new astronauts!

3. Undergo initial screening and provide additional information as requested.

After applicants apply to the Astronaut Candidate program, applications undergo a preliminary screening. During this step, some applicants may be asked to provide additional information.upervisors and references may also be contacted at this step in the process.

4. Participate in three steps for final consideration.

Both military and civilian candidates for the Astronaut Candidate position who pass the initial screening are required to go through a week-long assessment process. This includes personal interviews, medical screening and orientation.

5. Receive notification.

For those who are selected as Astronaut Candidates,, complete background investigations are required after their final selection.

6. Undergo Astronaut Candidate training and evaluation.

Those who are selected as Astronaut Candidates are assigned to the Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they must undergo a two-year long basic Astronaut Candidate training and evaluation program. This program helps all Astronaut Candidates gain the knowledge and skills for formal mission training. 

During the training program, Astronaut Candidates with jet piloting backgrounds will maintain proficiency in NASA aircraft during their candidate period. Additionally, , trainees must complete military water survival before starting their flying syllabi and attain SCUBA certification to prepare for extravehicular activity (EVA) training. Due to these requirements, all Astronaut Candidates are required to pass a swimming test.

7. Complete the Astronaut Candidate program to be selectable as an astronaut.

Upon successful completion of the training and evaluation program, Astronaut Candidate trainers become eligible for consideration as astronauts (however, it's important to note that selection as a Astronaut Candidate doesn't ensure selection as an astronaut).

According to NASA, to graduate from the Astronaut Candidate Program, trainees must successfully complete:

  • International Space Station (ISS) systems training

  • Extravehicular Activity skills training

  • Robotics skills training

  • Russian language training

  • Aircraft flight readiness training

8. Become an astronaut or other NASA employee.

While completion of the Astronaut Candidate Program doesn't ensure selection as an astronaut, it does nearly ensure employment within the federal government. NASA explains, “Civilian candidates who successfully complete the training and evaluation and are selected as astronauts will become permanent Federal employees. Civilian candidates who are not selected as astronauts may be placed in other positions within NASA, depending upon Agency requirements and labor constraints at that time.  Successful military candidates will be detailed to NASA for a specified tour of duty.”

How long does it take to become an astronaut?

The path to becoming an astronaut is long and arduous. If you count the bachelor's degree and training alone, it takes a minimum of six years (and that doesn't even include the three years of work experience or 1,000 hours of flying experience). So, in short, it takes well over half a decade of work to become an astronaut.

How much does an astronaut earn a year?

According to NASA, civilian astronauts' pay is based on the federal government's General Schedule pay scale for grades GS-11 through GS-14. Each person's grade is determined by their academic achievements and experience.  According to FederalPay.org, the 2019 starting salary for a GS-11 employee was $53,805 per year — so civilian astronauts would make at least that salary. On the higher end of the scale, FederalPay.org reports a maximum possible base pay of $117,810 for GS-14 federal employees in 2019.

Military astronauts' pay, benefits, leave, and other personnel-related issues are based on their military branch. This is because military personnel detailed to the Johnson Space Center remain on active duty status.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.