Photo courtesy of NASA

If you are looking for a career that combines cool technology, interesting science and great adventure, you could hardly make a better choice than becoming an astronaut. And there is potential for growth in the field. With the construction of the International Space Station under way, there will be a permanent human presence in outer space and a need for astronauts. But becoming an astronaut in the U.S. space program is not easy, and the process can take several years.

There are three types of astronauts in the U.S. space program:

  • Commander/pilot
  • Mission specialist
  • Payload specialist
The commander is responsible for the mission, the crew and the vehicle. The pilot assists the commander in operating the vehicle and deploying satellites. The mission specialist works with the commander and pilots in shuttle operations, performs spacewalks and conducts experiments. The payload specialist performs specialized duties as the mission requires. Payload specialists are people other than NASA personnel, and some are foreign nationals.

The basic qualifications for becoming an astronaut include:

  • U.S. citizenship (for pilots and mission specialists)
  • Bachelor's degree (engineering, biological sciences, physical sciences, mathematics) from an accredited college or university
  • Three years of related experience after obtaining the bachelor's degree (a master's degree equals one year of experience, and a doctorate equals three years)
  • The ability to pass a NASA space physical examination. Pilots need to pass a Class I physical; mission/payload specialists must pass Class II. Both are similar to civilian and military flight examinations
  • More than 1,000 hours experience as pilot-in-command of a jet aircraft (pilots only)
  • Height - 64 to76 inches (162.5 cm to 193 cm) for pilots or 58.5 to 76 inches (148.5 cm to 193 cm) for mission/payload specialists

To apply for an astronaut position, fill out the appropriate forms and submit them to NASA, which accepts applications continuously. You can download the forms here. NASA then screens the applications, and you may be asked to go for a weeklong session where you will participate in personal interviews, medical tests and orientations. Your screening performance will be evaluated, and if you are lucky, you may be accepted as an astronaut candidate. NASA announces candidates every two years from thousands of applications. NASA selects about a hundred men and women as astronaut candidates.

If you are selected, you will report to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for training and evaluations, which last two years. During the training period, you will take classes in basic science (math, astronomy, physics, geology, meteorology, oceanography), technology (navigation, orbital mechanics, materials processing), and space shuttle systems. You will also be trained in land and sea survival techniques, SCUBA, microgravity, high and low pressure environments, and spacesuits. You must pass a swimming test (swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool in flight suit and tennis shoes, and tread water for 10 minutes). If you are a pilot, you will train in NASA's T-38 jet aircraft and shuttle training aircraft at least 15 hours each month. Mission specialists fly four hours each month.

At the end of the two-year training period, you may be selected to become an astronaut. As an astronaut, you will continue classroom training on the various aspects of space shuttle operations that you started as an astronaut candidate. You will begin training on each individual system in the shuttle with the help of an instructor. After that, you will train in simulators for pre-launch, launch, orbit, entry and landing. Depending upon whether you are a pilot or mission specialist, you will learn how to use the shuttle's robotic arm to manipulate cargo. You will continue generic training until you are selected for a flight.


Photo courtesy of NASA
Astronauts train underwater to build the International Space Station

Once you are selected for a flight, you will receive specific training for the mission at least 10 months prior to the flight. This includes training in flight simulators, full-scale mockups of the shuttle and space station, and underwater training for spacewalks. The simulations will prepare you for every type of emergency or contingency imaginable.


Photo courtesy of NASA
View of Florida from outer space

After your training, you will prepare for your flight with training in the shuttle itself (pilots), meetings and more simulations. After your flight, you will have several days of medical tests and discussions; these are called debriefings.

Astronauts are expected to stay with NASA for at least 5 years after their selection. They are federal civil service employees (GS-11 to GS-14 grade) with equivalent pay based on experience. They are eligible for vacation, medical and life insurance, and retirement benefits.

So, you can see that you will need education, hard work and steadfast dedication to become an astronaut. However, the view is tremendous!

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