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.