With a combination of luck, skill and elbow grease, trainees that pass the rigorous program are selected as NASA astronaut candidates and then go on to graduate from the basic training process.
OK, so what happens then? Well, most won't actually be eligible to go up into space until the administration assigns them to their first mission. Then, they have to complete even more specialized training to prepare themselves for the journey. A rookie space traveler will generally embark upon his or her maiden voyage with a couple of veteran astronauts who double as his or her advisers [source: NASA].
Recent graduates of the basic training process may not receive their first mission assignment for a couple of years. During this so-called pre-assignment phase, most astronauts perform Earth-bound jobs like collaborating with their space program's engineers or serving as foreign liaisons. Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger finished her general NASA training in 2006 but didn't venture into Earth's orbit until 2010. For those now going through a pre-assignment period, she recommends finding time to refresh your astronaut skill set [source: Metcalf-Lindenburger].
Over at the ESA, Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang spent 14 years in limbo before he was finally put on his first mission. On the other hand, Luca Parmitano of Italy managed to secure an assignment from the agency before he'd even finished basic training [source: Peake].
Author's Note: 10 Surprising Facts About Astronaut Training
I will never forget the story my mother told me about the Apollo 11 landing. In the summer of 1969, she was 9 years old and had been enrolled in a summer camp (I think it was somewhere in upstate New York). For the sake of natural serenity, the staff prohibited television sets. But that ban was lifted on the night of July 20, 1969. Sitting in a crowded mess hall, the campers watched Neil Armstrong's "one small step" through a black-and-white TV screen. Human progress was being made in real time. My mom remembers walking back to her cabin after the broadcast. She also remembers looking up at the moon in a starry, cloudless sky and thinking "Wow, there are people up there." That's why astronauts have the most coveted careers in the world. And that's why I wanted to write this article.
More Great Links
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With the Russian Soyuz spacecraft officially out of commission, what does that mean for the International Space Station? HowStuffWorks investigates.