How do I become an astronaut?

As NASA has demonstrated repeatedly, unmanned space probes can return a significant amount of data about our solar system and the universe beyond. But even state-of-the-art machines such as Curiosity, the one-ton, instrument-laden machine due to arrive on Mars in August 2012, can only accomplish so much without arms, legs and a brain.

That's why astronauts, even in the post-shuttle era, will remain essential personnel in the near and not-so-near future of spaceflight. In fact, we may see more astronauts than ever before as private companies loft their own crews into the heavens. That's good news for anyone who has dreamed of taking one giant leap for mankind, but becoming an astronaut -- for the government or industry -- will remain a challenging process. Let's start first with how the U.S. space program finds astronaut candidates.

NASA manages the Astronaut Corps through the Flight Crew Operations Directorate at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The Astronaut Corps includes those men and women who are qualified to fly into space, but excludes astronauts who have transitioned to management positions within NASA and no longer operate spacecraft. In recent years, the number of astronauts in the corps has been reduced substantially -- from approximately 150 in 2000 to 61 in 2011 [source: National Research Council]. But that number could rise again if U.S. budget and policy makers follow the recommendations of the National Research Council, which issued a report in September 2011 warning NASA it could face an astronaut shortage if it doesn't ramp up recruitment.

The space agency took an initial step to make up the shortfall when it began accepting applications for a new class of astronaut candidates on Nov. 15, 2011. The deadline to apply is Jan. 27, 2012, and in early 2013, NASA will select up to 15 qualified men and women to enter the Astronaut Corps. By June 2013, those future spacefarers will be in Houston, training for the missions in NASA's next chapter. Those missions will likely include trips to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Russian Soyuz rockets, but could also involve missions beyond low-Earth orbit using U.S.-built commercial vehicles or NASA's Orion spaceship and heavy-lift rocket.

Still ready to explore the outer reaches? We'll get into the qualifications you'll need to have to become an astronaut for NASA next.

Foreign Astronauts

NASA regularly works with foreign astronauts, including those from Canada, Japan, Russia, Brazil and Europe. You can find a full list of foreign and international space agencies here. You should be aware, however, that each foreign agency has its own guidelines and rules for astronaut selection. For example, the European Space Agency, or ESA, manages the European Astronaut Corps, which recruits new candidates from Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. To date, the ESA has only run three astronaut selection campaigns, with the most recent concluding in 2009. During that campaign, the ESA narrowed down 8,413 qualified candidates to just six selected astronauts [source: ESA]!

Qualifications for Becoming an Astronaut

The basic qualifications for becoming an astronaut center on NASA's near-term strategic goals. For example, astronauts must now meet the size requirements of the Soyuz vehicle, not the space shuttle. They must also know the International Space Station inside and out, from running onboard experiments to completing routine maintenance tasks. Here are the basic qualifications every NASA astronaut must have [source: USAJOBS]:

  • U.S. citizenship
  • Bachelor's degree in engineering, biological sciences, physical sciences or mathematics from an accredited college or university
  • Three years of related professional experience after obtaining the bachelor's degree or at least 1,000 hours in jet aircraft as the pilot in command. Advanced degrees may be substituted for professional experience according to the following formula: a master's degree equals one year of experience, and a doctorate equals three years.
  • Completion of the NASA long-duration, space flight physical exam. Applicants must demonstrate distant and near visual acuity, correctable to 20/20 in each eye, and must not have blood pressure that exceeds 140/90 measured in a sitting position.
  • Height of 62 to 75 inches (157.5 centimeters to 190.5 centimeters).

If you have these basic qualifications and want to apply, you must follow very specific procedures. Civilians must submit applications through the Office of Personnel Management's USAJOBS site. One caveat about your résumé: It must be no longer than six typed pages, or approximately 22,000 characters, including spaces. If your résumé is too long, or if it's uploaded from a second source, it will be bumped from the system. In addition to a résumé, you'll need to submit transcripts accompanied by a coversheet, a list of references and other skills, and an overview of your aeronautical experience. You can find all of these forms on the USAJOBS site.

Just like civilians, active-duty military personnel must submit applications for the Astronaut Candidate Program through the Office of Personnel Management's USAJOBS site. Then they must also apply through their respective military services, using procedures and requirements determined by their specific service. Military points of contact can be found here.

Becoming a Corporate Astronaut

For many years, space remained a destination only big government agencies with big, taxpayer-funded budgets could afford to reach. In recent years, though, several private companies have been hard at work to make space travel a profitable private venture. These companies will also need highly trained astronauts to operate their vehicles and carry out their missions. Virgin Galactic, one such company, hired its first astronaut -- former Air Force test pilot Keith Colmer -- in October 2011. Colmer will join chief pilot David Mackay behind the "wheels" of Virgin Galactic's space vehicles, WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. The company hopes to add additional pilot-astronauts in the near future, so if you're interested, keep an eye on Virgin's career site for additional information about qualifications and benefits.

Astronaut Candidate Selection

NASA evaluates all of the applicants and narrows the list down to a small group of finalists. These finalists must complete a grueling week of personal interviews, medical screening and orientation to see if they have the right stuff to become candidates. NASA selects about 100 men and women for each candidate class. These lucky people report to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for two years of training and evaluations. The training is designed to develop the knowledge and skills required for a formal mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Candidates receive instruction in ISS systems and operations, extravehicular activities, robotics, aircraft flight readiness and the Russian language. And, because a significant amount of astronaut training occurs underwater to simulate low-gravity environments, all candidates must complete military water survival and become SCUBA-qualified. They must also swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool in flight suit and tennis shoes and tread water for 10 minutes.

Let's say, for a moment, you're one of those candidates who survived candidate training. At the end of the two-year training program, you may be selected to become an astronaut. As an astronaut, you will continue generic classroom training on the various aspects of ISS operations that you started as an astronaut candidate. You will also travel to Russia to train in Soyuz simulators for prelaunch, launch, orbit, entry and landing.

Once you are chosen for a mission, you will receive training specific to that mission. Long-duration missions aboard the ISS generally last from three to six months and require two to three years of preparation. You will be expected to have detailed knowledge of the operational characteristics, mission requirements and objectives, and supporting systems and equipment for each experiment on your assigned missions.

Astronauts are expected to stay with NASA for at least five years after their selection (military personnel are detailed to NASA for a selected period of time). They are federal civil service employees (GS-11 to GS-14 grade) with equivalent pay based on experience. They're eligible for vacation, medical and life insurance, and retirement benefits.

In many ways, becoming an astronaut is no different than becoming anything else. It takes a great education, hard work and steadfast dedication. Unlike other professionals, however, astronauts have a much longer commute and a far better view from the corner office.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Careers at NASA. "Astronaut Candidate Program." NASA People. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://astronauts.nasa.gov/content/broch00.htm
  • Clark, Stephen. "Help wanted: Apply to be a NASA astronaut online." Spaceflight Now. Nov. 15, 2011. (Nov. 18, 2011) http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n1111/15astronauts/
  • Committee on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations, National Research Council. "Preparing for the High Frontier: The Role and Training of NASA." The National Academies Press. 2011.
  • European Space Agency (ESA). "How to become an astronaut." ESA Astronauts. May 22, 2009. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.esa.int/esaHS/ESA1RMGBCLC_astronauts_0.html
  • USAJobs. "Astronaut Candidate Job Announcement." (Nov. 18, 2011) http://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/302967000
  • Virgin Galactic News. "Virgin Galactic Selects firs Pilot Astronaut from Competition." Virgin Galactic. (Nov. 18, 2011) http://www.virgingalactic.com/news/item/virgin-galactic-selects-first-commercial-astronaut-pilot-from-competition/
  • Wall, Mike. "Private space efforts get astronauts in air before NASA." MSNBC. Sept. 30, 2011. (Nov. 18, 2011) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44737711/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/private-space-efforts-get-astronauts-air-nasa/#.Tt-FrPL-7lZ