How to Become an Astronaut

By: William Harris & Sascha Bos  | 
Young girl in orange space suit holding an astronaut helmet
Do you want to be an astronaut when you grow up? You'll have to do a lot before even qualifying for the astronaut training that could land you on a space exploration team — but we have a feeling the views would be worth it. John Lund / Getty Images

As NASA has repeatedly demonstrated, unpiloted space probes can return significant data about our solar system and the universe beyond. But even state-of-the-art machines such as Juno, the instrument-laden machine that departed for Jupiter in August 2011, can only accomplish so much without humans.

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 crews into the heavens. Here's how to become an astronaut.


How the U.S. Space Program Finds Astronaut Candidates

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) manages the Astronaut Corps through the Flight Crew Operations Directorate at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The Astronaut Corps includes people 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 to just 38 active astronauts in 2023 [source: NASA, National Research Council].


NASA opens applications for its astronaut program about every four years [source: McClain]. In December 2021, NASA selected 10 astronaut candidates from a whopping 12,000 applicants [source: Margetta]. The application was open to the public between March 2 and March 31, 2020, and included a new requirement: a master's degree in science, technology, engineering or math.

After reviewing the applications, NASA interviewed highly qualified candidates at the Johnson Space Center.


Qualifications for Becoming an Astronaut

The basic qualifications for becoming an astronaut center on NASA's near-term strategic goals. 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: NASA]:

  • U.S. citizenship
  • Master's degree in engineering, biological sciences, physical sciences or mathematics from an accredited college or university. (The master's degree requirement can also be met with two years of study in a STEM doctoral program, a medicine or osteopathic medicine degree, completion of a nationally recognized test pilot school program or other relevant professional experience.)
  • At least two years of related professional experience in a STEM field or at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft
  • Completion of the NASA long-duration, space flight physical exam
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 22 member states including Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. In 2022, the ESA announced its first astronaut class in 13 years [source: ESA].


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.

Astronaut candidates 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 systems and operations, training for spacewalks, robotics, operating a T-38 training jet and the Russian language.


Let's say, for a moment, you're one of those candidates who survived mandatory basic 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.

Once you are chosen for a space 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.

NASA astronauts are expected to stay with the agency 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-13 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.


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 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.


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