ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, a Flight Engineer with Expedition 42, photographs the Earth through a window in the Cupola on the International Space Station.Credit: NASA
ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, a Flight Engineer with Expedition 42, photographs the Earth through a window in the Cupola on the International Space Station.

Job Profile

Astronauts

Astronauts are the people who actually go into space, conduct experiments on space stations like the ISS, and pilot spacecraft like the Space Shuttle.


Job Description

Astronauts are the most well known figures in the space sector. They are the people who actually go into space, conduct experiments on space stations like the ISS, and pilot spacecraft like the Space Shuttle.

The first British person in space was Dr Helen Sharman (1991). The first British ESA astronaut is Tim Peake (2015). British astronauts work on the International Space Station alongside colleagues from all over Europe, Russia, the United States, Canada, and Japan. Astronauts in the Russian space programme are known as cosmonauts, and those in China as Taikonauts.

Each astronaut has a specific role that depends on their expertise and the experiments currently on board the space station. Most experiments relate to the unique environment of space, studying how microgravity and radiation affect things like the human body, crystal growth, and the mutation of viruses. The results of this research are used on Earth to improve our medicines, manufacturing processes, and knowledge of science. 

As an astronaut you might:

  • Study the operations of the International Space Station, and practice space walks in a swimming pool

  • Perform experiments in space using special equipment or on yourself to help us improve our understanding of science

  • Repair and maintain systems such as air filters and waste processors

  • Unload and install shipments of supplies and equipment from Earth

  • Exercise for several hours a day to prevent your bones and muscles from wasting away in micro-gravity

  • Conduct an Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) or 'space walk', strapping on a special suit and leaving the space station in order to repair a damaged component outside

  • Take photos of the Earth from space or record songs in micro-gravity

  • Communicate with people back on Earth to check in, relay science results, and answer question from school students

  • Tour the country giving talks to promote space and science careers to students and the public


Working Hours & Conditions

While on Earth, each astronaut has a tailored training plan and schedule of public appearances. This could happen all over the world as training facilities are shared between national agencies. The European Astronaut Centre is in Cologne.

Once in space, they have special responsibilities for specific experiments and their days will be carefully planned out weeks in advance. Much of their time is taken up with everyday activities like sleeping, eating, and washing, as these are often more difficult in microgravity.


Routes to being an Astronaut

There are very few astronauts in the world, and there is no easy way to become one. Space agencies such as NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos recruit a new astronaut class every few years according to their requirements and competition is high. The UK Space Agency is a member of ESA, so British citizens can apply to become ESA astronauts.

There is no requirement for a particular degree or experience, but astronauts require a high level of technical education and several years of experience, as well as good physical and mental health.

After selection astronauts must go through years of training. This covers scientific knowledge, the systems of the International Space Station (ISS), space policy, space walks, and much more.

There is no guarantee that a trained astronaut will get to go to space as flight opprtunities are very limited.


Online Resources

European Space Agency – ESA employs and trains all European astronauts. Its website has detailed information about the requirements for being an astronaut, their training regime, and what they do in space.

NASA – NASA is the US space agency and was responsible for sending astroanuts to the Moon. Its website has information about astronaut training and interviews with current and past spacefarers.

National Careers Service: Astronaut – The National Careers Service is provided by the UK's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Its website has information about a huge range of jobs related to space, including being an astronaut.

Author

Joseph Dudley

Joseph studied Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial College London, and created SpaceCarers.uk.

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