The Right Stuff - How do I become an astronaut?

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

This must be one of the most asked questions of all time in the space industry.

I am guilty of asking a question myself a couple of times. Below, I will share with you the answers I have heard and the advice I have gleaned from my brief time with astronauts and trainers at the European Astronaut Centre.

But first, let's start with the basics.

The Basics

NASA's website states very clearly that in order to eligible for selection a US-citizen must have:

"1. A bachelor's degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics.

2. At least three years of related professional experience obtained after degree completion OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft.

3.The ability to pass the NASA long-duration astronaut physical. Distant and near visual acuity must be correctable to 20/20 for each eye. The use of glasses is acceptable. "

Doesn't seem too hard right? Lots of people have degrees. Unfortunately these basic requirements make you eligible, but with a record-breaking 18,300 applications in 2016 for 12 spots, you'll have to do better. With those numbers, your chance of selection is around 0.06%, assuming all other factors are equal.

The NASA astronaut candidate class of 2017. Credit: NASA

So what can you do to stand out? Well, that depends who you ask. But it seems there are certainly ways to improve your chances, and here are a few.

#1: Do what makes you happy

No matter how perfect you may be, your chances of being selected as an astronaut are low. Thus, you must be happy with the idea that you won't make it. If you are only studying aerospace engineering because you think it's the best way to become an astronaut, what will happen to you if you don't make it?

I have heard ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who spent 199 days aboard the International Space Station, tell countless aspiring space explorers that they should not live their lives with this one goal in mind. The chances of failure are just too high. This may sound pessimistic, but actually it is freeing. Instead of taking only the moves you perceive to be the right move for advancing yourself towards the stars, you can live with the goal of going to space in mind, but you choose what to do, which job to take, what to study and where to move based on what makes you happy in your life.

Of course, very often these two goals of happiness and astronaut success will align themselves - but sometimes they won't and that's okay!

ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti gazes back at the Earth from the International Space Station. Credit: ESA

#2 Whatever you choose to do, be good at it

There is no doubt that astronauts are in general high achievers - just look at CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques, who is currently aboard the ISS who is somehow found the time to qualify as a medical doctor and complete a PhD in astrophysics!?

So what whatever you choose to do, be good at it. Say yes to as many things as you can. Learn, grow and take on new experiences. You never know where an opportunity may lead!

#3 Dedication

To achieve just the basic qualifications for astronaut selection takes several years of studying. Even when you get as far as completing your Master's degree, or getting a "Dr" before your name, you can still be years away from being considered a good applicant. Persistence and dedication are key.

Take it from retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson, (by the way, I thoroughly recommend his book "The Ordinary Spaceman") who was rejected 14 consecutive times for astronaut selection.

"The fact that I applied to become an astronaut fifteen times has not been lost on my friends, followers, or fans", wrote Anderson. Fortunately, his dedication did not waiver and he was finally accepted on his 15th attempt in 1998. He flew to space four times, spending a total of 166d 21h 10mins in space and performing 6 spacewalks in his incredible career.

Even if you do pass selection, you face several more years of arduous training, classroom time and exams before you get a flight assignment. With the European Space Agency, the time between being accepted as an astronaut candidate to finishing basic training, mission specific training and launching can be as long as 6 years.

But of course, the view is well worth the wait!

SpaceX Dragon capsule is berthed to the ISS. Credit: ESA Astronaut Alex Gerst

#4 Brush up your languages

Space exploration is a global endeavor. With the rapid rise of the Chinese Space Agency and new commitments from regions such as the UAE regarding the exploration of Mars, space is only becoming more diverse. As an ambassador for space exploration, science and even humanity, it is important that astronauts can conduct themselves in an appropriate way. The ability to communicate and relate to large audiences, as well as other crew members, is vital.

Every person who flies to the ISS must be fluent in English as that is the language of the aviation and aerospace sector. Further, all astronauts who launch to the ISS are currently required to become proficient in Russian, as the Soyuz capsule (currently the only way to launch crew to the ISS) is operated solely in Russian.

Some will point out that through NASA's Commercial Crew Program, American astronauts will be launched to the ISS as early as 2020. This negates the need to learn Russian for a Soyuz launch, however, the Space Station will remain in operation until at least 2024, with most industry professionals agreeing it will last to 2028 or further. Thus, as an American astronaut you will still spend periods of up to 6 months in orbit with three Russian cosmonauts!

For Europeans applicants, the official languages of the European Space Agency are English and French, therefore it is vital that European astronauts are fluent in English and at least have a working knowledge of the language of love. For most astronauts then, this then means that they must learn one, if not two, languages before being qualified to fly.

On top of all of this, the Chinese Space Agency has made leaps and bounds in their human spaceflight program: Tiangong. It is likely that European astronauts will one day soon fly to a Chinese space station, so you can add the Chinese language to the to-do list too!

ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti seems to have taken this advice to the extreme and is fluent in 7 languages - she speaks Italian (native), English, German, French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese!

#5 Get creative

Perhaps an unexpected trait that space agencies appreciate in astronaut candidates is creativity.

It makes sense: if you are going to shut 6 crew members together in an aluminum can in outer space you want to make sure they won't go crazy from boredom, stress or isolation.

Researchers from programs such as HI-SEAS, Mars500 and others have found that creative people can be more reliable and are less likely to suffer ill effects of prolonged isolation such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders.

Being creative can also help solve life or death scenarios - just think of Apollo 13's infamous 'square peg, round hole' conundrum!

At the very least, you might get a cool music video.

#6 Get used to Isolated, Extreme and Confined (ICE) environments

A short but fairly fundamental part of being an astronaut is strapping yourself into a tiny seat on top of over 200 tons of explosive rocket fuel, ready to be blasted into orbit. It goes without saying that these people can't suffer from claustrophobia.

Expedition 53 crewmembers Randy Bresnik of NASA, Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency and Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia's Roscosmos agency inside their Soyuz capsule. Credit: NASA.

In fact, to make sure that their astronauts are ready for such a job, space agencies will carry out training in various stressful situations. This includes survival training in harsh Russian winters as well as water training, in case their returning capsule lands out at sea.

NASA also runs the NASA Extreme Environment MIssion Operations (NEEMO) off the coast of Florida. According to the NASA website "NEEMO is a NASA mission that sends groups of astronauts, engineers and scientists to live in Aquarius, the world's only undersea research station, for up to three weeks at a time. The Aquarius habitat and its surroundings provide a convincing analog for space exploration. "

Underwater the astronauts can get a feel for the pressures of isolation while they perform scientific research tasks under genuinely dangerous conditions.

NASA NEEMO crew. Credit: NASA.

Similarly, ESA runs PANGAEA, which is an astronaut training course that, according to their website, aims "to provide European astronauts with introductory and practical knowledge of Earth and planetary geology to prepare them to become effective partners of planetary scientists and engineers in designing the next exploration missions." The program also doubles as an ICE test, as the crew spend several days in darkness and must work together to complete planetary geology tasks. In fact, the caves below Italy are so complicated that they are more isolated here than they will be when they enter the ISS as it takes them several days to evacuate in an emergency.

ESA Pangaea team explores a cave somewhere under Italy. Credit: ESA/EAC.

If you have thoughts on what other qualities are required by astronauts, leave a comment below! And if you enjoyed this article, please help us out by sharing it on your favourite site. Thank you!

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