Educator Features

When I Grow Up
An astronaut signing autographs for children
Are you looking for a career that requires continuing education, long hours and lots of study time? If the job title said "astronaut," you might be surprised at how many people would love the opportunity. When the first astronauts -- a term derived from the Greek words for "star sailor" -- were selected in early 1960s, candidates were military officers and aircraft pilots. In the 21st century, the criteria have changed to include scientists, doctors, engineers and educators.

Image to left: One of an astronaut's many jobs is meeting people. Credit: NASA

Before they're selected, all astronaut candidates must have a basic background that emphasizes reading, mathematics and science that begins in elementary school. As high school progresses, engineering classes or advanced placement classes in mathematics, biology and physical science help. Internships and co-op opportunities provide a great way to get experience. There are 51 colleges and universities that are a part of the Space Grant Consortia, a program to encourage students with an interest in space careers, and attending these schools might help ensure that hopeful candidates are prepared to meet the challenges presented to astronauts. For mission specialists, three years of related, progressively responsible professional experience must follow the degree. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for all or part of the experience requirement. Depending on experience and other credentials, astronauts can expect to earn a salary between $67,000 and $123,000 per year to start, with an increase in salary based on time on the job and supervisory evaluations.

Specific Requirements for Specific Jobs

A group of astronauts in blue flight suits standing in front of the Orbiter
Image to left: Astronauts put in hours of training while waiting to go into space. Credit: NASA

Mission specialists carry out the science and research projects and experiments aboard a spacecraft while the main responsibility of the commander and pilot is to control the Shuttle during launch, landing and maneuvers in space. Both categories of astronauts take part in a number of other activities as well, so the well-rounded candidate will have a broad education. An advanced degree is desirable and pilot astronaut applicants must also have 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft, with flight-test experience highly desirable. Candidates must be able to pass a NASA Class I space physical, which includes standards for vision, blood pressure and a height between 58 and 76 inches.

Besides basic skills, education, training and experience, the final selection is based largely on personal interviews. Astronauts are expected to be team players and highly skilled generalists with an ability to work effectively with their crewmates.

Once selected, the astronaut candidates spend up to two years at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Tex., attending classes on Shuttle and International Space Station systems, astronomy and planetary science; Earth science including geology, meteorology and oceanography; life science research in microgravity; crystal growth experimentation; fluid physics; combustion and material science; orbital dynamics; guidance and navigation. Astronauts are required to complete military land and water survival exercises prior to beginning their flight instruction on a T-38 training jet. The water survival training requires the astronaut candidates to pass a swim test. They must be able to swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes and to tread water continuously for 10 minutes.

The Next Step In Training

Astronauts begin their formal Shuttle training by studying manuals and participating in computer-based training lessons from propulsion to environmental control. After that, they proceed to the Single Systems Trainer (SST), a type of simulator. Astronauts learn to operate each space vehicle system, to recognize malfunctions and to correct problems.

An astronaut training in the neutral buoyancy tank
After the SST training, astronauts begin training in the Shuttle Mission Simulators. They provide training in all areas of Shuttle vehicle operations from pre-launch, ascent and orbit operations to entry and landing.

Image to left: The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory gives astronauts a chance to get ready for a spacewalk. Credit: NASA

The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory provides operations in a water tank to simulate weightless conditions in space. It's an important tool to help astronauts prepare for spacewalks.

Several full-scale mockups and trainers are also used to prepare astronauts. The full fuselage trainer is a plywood Shuttle mockup with a low fidelity mid-deck, flight deck and full-scale payload bay. Astronauts practice meal preparation, equipment stowage and trash management, camera use and placement, and experiment familiarization. The trainer also helps astronauts become familiar with emergency landings and escape methods.

Astronauts who participate in the International Space Station program receive Russian language instruction both in the United States and in Russia. Their training on Russian systems takes place at the Yuri Gargarin Cosmonaut Training Center outside of Moscow. The astronauts and cosmonauts who will live aboard the ISS receive U.S. hardware and systems training primarily in Houston. The U.S. ISS training begins with classroom lectures and is followed by training in the Part Task Trainer (PTT) and the Space Station Training Facility (SSTF). The PTT is a simulator that models one ISS system at a time so the astronauts can learn how to operate that system thoroughly. In the SSTF the astronauts learn how to perform timelines of integrated tasks on all systems in order to prepare for operations on the ISS.

Besides an Astronaut

Astronauts may get the glory, but there are many other space-related careers that NASA offers. Some of the possibilities include:
  • Astronomer
  • Biologist
  • Chemist
  • Nutritionist
  • Oceanographer
  • Physicist
  • Geologist
  • Physician
  • Meteorologist
  • Psychologist
  • Computer scientist
  • Mathematician
  • Biomedical, systems, electrical, nuclear, chemical or civil engineer
  • Writer
  • Artist
  • Editor
  • Education specialist
  • Public relations
  • Audiovisual specialist
  • Photographer
  • Quality control inspector
  • Ground radio operator
For more information about jobs at NASA, visit these sites: