Becoming an astronaut is perhaps one of the most difficult career paths you could take — after all, many of them are Air Force pilots, and possess advanced degrees in science and engineering. However, that shouldn’t discourage you, if it’s truly your passion, but be ensured you’re in for a long and tough process.
For example, astronauts are expected to be in excellent physical shape, and there are height, blood pressure, and visual acuity requirements as well. So, unfortunately, it’s possible to simply be the wrong shape or have the wrong capabilities. There isn’t only one path toward the goal, however. Astronauts might possess either Air Force or Navy experience, but it’s theoretically possible to become one without first serving in the military. In addition, there are a number of different degrees that would make you useful on missions beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Nasa’s Summary of Astronaut Qualifications
In order to be accepted into the program, NASA has some rather simple requirements:
- “A bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics.
- 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.
- 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.”
Notice that the visual acuity requirements are actually quite relaxed. As long as your vision can become 20/20, even with the help of glasses, you shouldn’t be disqualified based on it.
Becoming an astronaut requires rigorous physical training, and even entering the training program requires applicants to pass an exhaustive physical. That is just the beginning — once accepted into the two-year training program, astronaut candidates are expected to complete SCUBA, water survival, and swimming certifications, and those are just in preparation for flight and EVA training.
Once in the training program, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be selected to be an astronaut. That will depend on your performance during the two-year period.
Military service is a common way into NASA training, especially for Navy and Air Force personnel, as they will already possess many of the baseline physical and knowledge skills that NASA training builds upon. However, there is absolutely a civilian path to being an astronaut, though it may take longer to acquire the baseline training that NASA requires.
NASA is putting a lot of emphasis on “scientist astronauts” — back in the first years of the space program, they primarily needed pilots and engineers. Then in 1969, the requirements broadened as we became more comfortable with space exploration, going further, and engaging in cooperative scientific efforts at the International Space Station. NASA is also looking for astronauts who can perform experiments, maintain complex equipment, and who have a variety of applicable knowledge skills to push the envelope of science performed in space.
Back in 1969, you needed to possess a doctorate to be considered, but bachelor’s degrees are enough today to get you into a training program, when taken into consideration all the other requirements — though upgrading at least to a master’s degree would probably help.
NASA only takes the absolute best of the best candidates — those possessing the physical skills, endurance, knowledge, and leadership ability to work and live in the harsh, lethal environment of space. On the other hand, they have opened candidacy up to many potential career paths. It’s now entirely possible to switch careers and enter NASA later if you have at least some of the qualifications, whether they are from military service or academic study.
It’s important to note that NASA can be strict about the qualifying programs and schools it accepts. They’re looking for technical science and engineering degrees, in addition to professional experience in those fields. If you’re switching into a technical field from a more business-oriented career, you’ll likely need to take standardized tests like the GRE to be admitted into a science or engineering program that qualifies.
If you work in science and engineering, in the tech industry, or in life and environment sciences, there are a number of ways you can contribute to America’s space program. Even if you don’t make it through astronaut training, NASA sometimes hires trainees who don’t quite make the cut for other jobs on the ground.
Remember that NASA normally seeks additional skills in leadership and communication, as you’ll need exceptional soft skills to work with a team of professionals in such difficult and potentially dangerous environments as shuttles and space stations. Because of this, it’s a good idea to spend time on training and activities that highlight leadership and communications, and make specific note of all your soft qualifications on your application.
The path to becoming an astronaut is long and arduous, but it has many different beginnings. Don’t count yourself out because you’re not an engineer or military pilot!