As kids, many of us had a pretty standard set of answers when we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. Firefighter, police officer, ballerina, chef, or astronaut. Even today, the dream of becoming an astronaut is alive and well for most kids — and some adults. After all, there would be no greater adventure than one that involved leaving the planet to explore things that nobody else has ever seen before.
Of course, actually becoming an astronaut is no easy task. It requires extraordinary educational achievements, extensive flight experience, and rigorous physical and mental testing to even become a candidate. However, if the moon, the planets, the stars, and even the galaxy are your goals, you should do your best to reach for them.
For Americans, the key employer for astronauts is NASA. But beyond just hiring astronauts, NASA employs thousands of other scientists and engineers to run and provide support to hundreds of other projects that promote greater understanding of our planet and the surrounding universe. Aside from the incredible opportunities to explore something brand new, most of these jobs pay pretty well too. With the right attitude and some luck, you might just qualify for them!
Laying the Groundwork
So you’ve set your mind to working for NASA — that’s great! The agency could really benefit from a smart, passionate person like yourself. The only problem is that you’re not sure you have any experience. Switching jobs and starting a career in a new field without experience can be challenging — it would be a lie to say it would be easy — but it is absolutely a realistic possibility.
The best thing you can do is look into the requirements for the entry-level position of the job you ultimately want to have. Work towards meeting the qualifications for that and start applying. There is no reason not to apply, even if you don’t feel qualified. The worst they can tell you is no. For a position at NASA general qualifications you might want to work for are:
- A degree in a STEM field including physics, chemistry, remote sensing, coding, or mathematics
- Flight experience
- Military officer training
- Coding skills
With the right set of skills in place and the perseverance, sooner or later an interview might be in order. This means it is more valuable than ever to brush up on your interview skills. Take time to plan out some of your responses to more common behavioral interview questions such as “Describe a time you’ve dealt with conflict” or “Explain a scenario where you contributed to a team’s success.” Doing so can help you look more professional and leave more time for complex, job-specific questions.
Unfortunately, if you are hoping to qualify for an astronaut position in the near future, you may have already missed your chance! NASA opened an announcement for a new class of astronauts in March of 2020. Last time NASA hired new astronauts, only a handful were chosen out of nearly 18,000 applicants!
This new group of qualified professionals will go through a lengthy and rigorous set of training in order to actually move from the candidate phase and into a position where they can begin to go on missions. Aside from U.S. citizenship, new candidates are required to have at least a Master’s degree level education in a qualifying discipline in addition to a background in other important skills such as flying or military training. Once hired, candidates will learn new skills such as:
- The Russian language
- Spacewalk technique in full gear (typically conducted underwater)
- Life-like virtual reality testing
- ISS protocol
- Flying a T-38 fighter jet
Recent funding and NASA’s long-term planning indicate that these new astronauts will likely contribute to and support missions that will push the bounds of known space travel. NASA has a goal of putting the first woman and another man on the moon by 2024. Establishing a moon base station and manning a trip to Mars are additional expeditions that are likely to come to pass within our lifetimes.
It’s Not All Astronauts
If you missed the deadline to become an astronaut, don’t fret. Aside from the fact that NASA will likely be hiring additional astronauts in the next five to ten years, there are a plethora of other jobs available at NASA. Many of them are high paying and provide a great deal of technical support to nearly every aspect of putting another human in space safely.
For instance, there are thousands of NASA engineers and associated contractors that are responsible for the mathematics, physics, and design of everything from spaceships to the food astronauts eat in space to waste disposal management. Every single one of these jobs is critical to the ultimate success of a mission in space. After all, something as simple as a misaligned bolt can cause catastrophic failures in multi-million dollar projects and risk human lives.
Beyond space, NASA is also responsible for the management of anything that goes into space. This means that a NASA engineer or remote sensing specialist is the person managing many of the government satellites in space that take important pictures back here on Earth. Satellite imagery is valuable for many things such as military operations, wildfire response, weather reporting, and much more.
NASA offers a great number of opportunities for those that are interested in space and dedicated to making their dreams come true. Though there are a lot of qualifications necessary to make it to NASA, it is feasible for those that are willing to put in the time. A high paying career as an astronaut, spaceship engineer, or remote sensing specialist are all potential opportunities.