Credit: ESA

Careers Advice

A Student's Guide to Becoming an Astronaut

Have you ever wondered if you have the "right stuff" to become an astronaut? Or what that stuff even is? Using information from the recent NASA application information, this article discusses what it takes to go space, or at least, apply for the chance to become an astronaut!

In the early days of space exploration, there was a focus on whether you had the “right stuff” to be an astronaut. The panel behind the Mercury 7 programme considered many different types of people who might have the required skills to deal with the unknown frontier of space- aircraft pilots, submariners, deep sea divers, mountain climbers, until the decision of using military test pilots was taken.

Since then, the world of space has opened up to encompass all of individuals, from different educational and cultural backgrounds. With the recent NASA astronaut recruitment drive, the imminent SpaceX crewed launches, as well as an upcoming search to find the next British astronaut, the world is abuzz with renewed excitement about space exploration. 

Do you think you have the right stuff to become a future astronaut? Learn more about the actual requirements that NASA astronauts must have to apply to the programme, and in a few years, it might be you on the Kennedy or Baikonur launch pad!

If you want to be an astronaut, then go ahead and study a STEM subject at university, where you should have either one of the following: a Master’s degree in a qualifying STEM discipline; a Bachelor’s degree in a qualifying subject alongside a Test Pilot School qualification; an M.D., D.O., or doctoral degree from a recognised university. Each space agency will have their own requirements, so it is heavily recommended to look at their requirements, but in general, the above requirements hold.

Although astronauts generally end up working on all sorts of projects once a part of the agency, they must select a sub-discipline that best suits their skills when applying. At NASA, these categories are pilots, flight test, biological and medical sciences, physical sciences, and engineering and operations. For the pilot discipline, you must have a minimum amount of hours of Pilot-in-Command time in a high performance jet aircraft. For the other disciplines, at least two years of professional experience is necessary. If you’re interested in the academic side of things, then PhD experience is also counted as professional experience. Go ahead and follow your passions!

Since astronauts are being exposed to a completely new environment, they must be willing to undergo both medical and physical testing. After all, ensuring that astronauts are healthy before sending them to a microgravity environment is extremely important. When astronauts are on their missions, the largest experiment of all is how the human body reacts in space. In fact, when astronauts get back from the International Space Station after spending weeks or months in space, their bodies must readjust to living under the force of Earth's gravity. One of the current things scientists are working on is to figure out the best way for the Mars astronauts to land safely, and adapt quickly to the Martian gravity. Essentially, as an astronaut, you’re a bit like a living, breathing, science experiment, and there’s so much to learn!

The life of an astronaut involves extensive exercise, as well as survival training. In fact, astronauts on the International Space Station must do at least 2 hours of exercise a day to keep healthy in a microgravity environment. To prepare for this, keeping an active lifestyle, as well as being prepared for adventure is important for astronauts. Part of astronaut training means passing a swimming test, as well as participation in parabolic flight operations to simulate microgravity environments. It can be intense, but also very rewarding. Wouldn’t you like to be able to ride in a “Zero-gravity” plane? Also, astronaut candidates and astronauts alike spend time under water using SCUBA gear or space suits to further replicate the space environment. This is done at locations such as the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Lab, which hosts a real life underwater model of the International Space Station, to allow for astronauts to prepare for their upcoming missions.

It goes without saying that astronauts have a long commute when they’re on a mission. However, even when they’re on Earth, they still have to travel quite a distance when they’re undergoing training. This is because space agencies work together with other organisations across the world, as many missions are shared between countries. Be ready to travel the world as an astronaut - you’ll get to see some incredible places, both on the Earth and above it!

When on missions, astronauts must be used to the idea of living in isolation, extreme conditions, and being deployed for long duration missions. However, for the chance of living in space, I’m sure astronaut candidates are willing to deal with the challenges of the role.

Due to being part of a unique group of just over 550 people who have travelled to space, astronauts are a source of inspiration for the general public. They will end up appearing before a variety of groups to educate the public about the space programme. People of all ages and professions are interested in space, so being a source of education and inspiration for people around them is an important part of the job.

Once you’ve gotten to the stage of astronaut training, you will have a whole adventure ahead. Astronauts have the chance to do some pretty amazing training in various areas. This includes the history and fundamentals of space flight, robotics training, spacecraft systems training, parachute training, Russian language training, flight training, physical training, among others. It goes without saying that the chance to become an astronaut offers many brilliant opportunities.

For those of you who aren’t quite at the stage to prepare for applying to be an astronaut, there are a few things you can do right now. Of course, having a Private Pilot’s License, a knowledge of space, or SCUBA and skydiving experience can help, but the main thing is to work hard and follow your passion. Whatever path you choose, even gaining experience to qualify for astronaut applications is an exciting one, so remember to enjoy your journey!


Christina MacLeod

Christina is an undergraduate student studying towards an MEng in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh.

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