Over the past four years I have shared my dream of becoming a NASA astronaut with kids and adults around the world. While there are only a handful of people who have made it to becoming a professional astronaut in the past 50 years, it is a dream that inspires kids throughout generations to reach for the stars.
What’s great about this dream is that if you reach for it and work hard, even if you don’t end up as one of the professional astronauts, chances are you will land in a pretty cool space 🙂 ! I have met countless engineers, scientists and other people who work in the space program whether through NASA, ESA, Roscosmos or for a number of private companies including Lockheed Martin, OrbitalATK and many others. These people love their jobs, and while being an astronaut may have been what started their passion for working in space, they are incredibly happy where their life paths have taken them.
So what is the secret of anyone who sets out to work in the space industry as an astronaut or any position that supports space exploration? There are some things that are requirements by NASA and other space agencies which you can find below and then there are things that I have learned that will help you along your path to application which I will talk about first.
The first step is to have a passion for space and not be afraid to talk about your dreams. The second step is to act big, to create a plan to make your dreams a reality and then work your plan every single day. While you work that plan, be prepared for it to change and adjust it as your life changes.
Talking About Your Dream to Become an Astronaut
When I say talking about your dream, I am not referring to talking online like I do (although that is one place you can talk about the dream) I am actually referring to talking to the people in your day to day life. Your parents, your teachers, your soccer coach, your friends, your grandparents, hair stylist, bank teller…ok you get the picture. Talk about it with everyone you can – don’t be obnoxious and dominate the conversation or make everything about your dream, but make sure people know it’s your dream and make sure they know you have a plan. This is how people know to help you, because you tell them what you are doing, what you hope to do and what you need to get there. If you don’t tell people how can they help you?
As far as talking about it online, it certainly can be nice to get support from others online as well. But be clear about why you are online talking about your dreams. If you are just looking for a community that supports you that is a good approach. If you think amassing a huge following will somehow help you become an astronaut, that is not going to help you. NASA does not select astronauts based on how popular they are online or offline – they select them based who is the best and who fits their needs at the time. Another great reason to be online is to help spread the important work of the space program. While I share my journey to becoming an astronaut online, I am actually also working to create interest in NASA and human space exploration. Why? Because for Mars to happen we need to get more funding for NASA and to get more funding we need the general public to become interested and understand why we need to do this. My commitment with my outreach work is to get someone to Mars in the 2030’s even if it’s not me that is selected by NASA.
Creating a Flexible Plan and Following It Everyday
Do you know the difference between a dream and a goal? A dream is near impossible to reach and a goal is something that you can probably reach if you create a plan and work day in and day out to make it happen. I recently read an article where my mentor Astronaut Luca Parmitano, said this. It stuck with me. It’s so true! Wanting to become an astronaut is a dream, but my career choice to become a scientist is a goal. Becoming a scientist is part of reaching the dream of becoming an astronaut and it’s important because it’s also what my career focus will be for 50+ years. I better love science don’t you think?
So passion is important. And goal setting is equally important. So how do you set goals for 10-20 years in the future? You write down the big goals and dreams and then you work backward to where you are today. I want to become an astronaut which means I need to qualify with some basics listed below. Before I make it to astronaut I need to make it to scientist and not only a scientist, I need to be one of the best. This means school. I started my process of planning back in 7th grade and it became clear I needed to take the most advanced math and science courses all the way through college. I set my goals first the milestones, high school, college, grad school and career and astronaut application. And then filled in the stuff closest with more specific goals. High school was in front of me so it was focusing on the right courses, getting into the University of Minnesota exclusive post secondary program and on and on. Next college my goals are solidifying and from there I will move outward. As time passes I can add things in to fill in gaps. I hang this plan on my bulletin board in my room and I look at it everyday. I change it and adjust it as needed and I make sure I am following it. Every day. Every choice I make takes me either one step closer or one step away from my goals and dreams. Keeping my dream and plan in front of me ensures I stay focused and make the right choices.
Don’t forget physical fitness, good health and other basics that will be necessary to become an astronaut. Include all of that into your plan.
NASA Requirements for How to Become an Astronaut
As for how to become an astronaut, we are fortunate as NASA has made the requirements to apply to the NASA astronaut corps available online. If you are from another country, please check with your country’s space agency. You can follow a similar guide as NASA’s, but be aware that every agency may be different. Here are a few agencies from countries other than the US:
- European Space Agency
- Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency
- Canadian Space Agency
- Russian Federal Space Agency
- China National Space Administration
United States Citizenship Astronaut Requirement
The first requirement for NASA astronauts is to be a United States citizen. However, if you were not born a natural citizen of the US, don’t give up hope! In 1981, Franklin Chang-Diaz became NASA’s first naturalized citizen astronaut. Chang-Diaz was born in Costa Rica and still holds dual citizenship. He conducted a very successful 25-year career with NASA, completing seven space shuttle missions. He was then followed by nine incredibly successful naturalized citizen astronauts: Gregory E. Chamitoff, Kalpana Chawla, C. Michael Foale, Gregory H. Johnson, Michael E. Lopez-Alegria, Carlos I. Noriega, Nicholas J.M. Patrick, Piers J. Sellers and Andrew S.W. Thomas. Astronauts are chosen because they are the best in their field of study, and this is no different for naturalized citizens looking to become astronauts. In fact, seven out of the 47 currently active NASA astronauts are naturalized citizens.
The path to become a NASA astronaut splits into two categories, Pilot or Mission Specialist. Pilot astronauts can serve as commanders or pilots of missions, and are responsible for the vehicle, crew, and mission safety/success, as well as the deployment of satellites and extravehicular activities. Mission Specialist astronauts are responsible for the use of consumables, crew activity planning and experiment/payload operations. Both are crucial positions that help to create a balanced crew.
The requirements listed below come from the NASA website. I want to underscore that these are minimal requirements. Look at any astronaut biography and you will see that their education and accomplishments are typically much greater than what NASA states as a minimum. Consider this: the 2013 astronaut class for NASA consisted of 8 astronauts who were selected from 6,100 applicants. That means applicants for this class in the NASA astronaut corps had a .013% chance of being selected.
Pilot Astronaut Minimal Requirements
Pilot astronauts need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological/physical sciences or mathematics. They also require a minimum of 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft.
Pilot astronauts need to be able to pass a NASA space physical, which includes the following items:
- Distant visual acuity: 20/100 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20 each eye
- Blood pressure: 140/90 measured in a sitting position
- Height between 62 and 75 inches
For applicants applying to be Pilot astronauts, NASA strongly recommends flight test experience. While it is theoretically possible to obtain these credentials without going into the military, the majority of NASA Pilot astronauts come from either the Air Force or Navy.
Mission Control Astronaut Minimal Requirements
Mission Control astronauts are required to have the same education as Pilot astronauts: a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological/physical sciences or mathematics. However, Mission Control astronauts must also have at least three years of “related, progressively responsible, professional experience” in their chosen field of study. Advanced education is highly recommended for both Pilot and Mission Control astronauts, and can even replace some of the three year work requirement. A master’s degree is equal to one year of experience, and a doctoral degree is equal to three years of experience.
Mission Control applicants must also be able to pass a NASA space physical including the following items:
- Distance visual acuity: 20/200 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, each eye
- Blood pressure: 140/90 measured in a sitting position
- Height between 58.5 and 76 inches
Payload Specialist Astronaut Minimal Requirements
A third and far less common path is that of a Payload Specialist astronaut. Payload Specialists are non-NASA personnel who are brought in to perform specialized onboard duties. They can be brought in from private companies, research universities and even other countries. Although they do not undergo the NASA astronaut selection process, they are required to have an appropriate education/training for their payload or experiment. Of course, they must also be physically fit for space travel. Payload specialists were far more common on the Space Shuttle missions than they are now on the Soyuz missions, due to the larger crew capacity of the Space Shuttle. Soyuz only holds a crew of three, leaving far less room for extra personnel such as Payload Specialists.
Also important for applicants to know is there are expectations for physical condition. Here is what the European Space Agency lays out for these requirements:
- The applicant must be free from any disease.
- The applicant must be free from any dependency on drugs, alcohol or tobacco.
- The applicant must have the normal range of motion and functionality in all joints.
- The applicant must have visual acuity in both eyes of 100% (20/20) either uncorrected or corrected with lenses or contact lenses.
- The applicant must be free from any psychiatric disorders.
- The applicant must demonstrate cognitive, mental and personality capabilities to enable him/her to work efficiently in an intellectually and socially highly demanding environment
In general, it’s expected that applicants are healthy! This means more than just working out once a week for a while and then quitting. The kind of health they are looking for is one that comes from a lifetime of commitment to healthy practices.
Due to the high interest/large number of applications they receive, NASA is able to accept only the cream of the crop, the very best of the best applicants, to become astronauts. Most astronauts have at least a master’s degree, and many have doctoral degrees. Some astronauts come in with considerable flight training, SCUBA training, foreign language skills, scientific experience or even experience on expedition missions.
Lastly, applications can only be submitted here for civilians. Those on active military duty should contact their respective military service for specific instructions.
Final Advice From Astronaut Abby
My advice to those seeking to become astronaut would be to use the above requirements, as well as resources from NASA’s website, to lay out a plan. Highlight each step, and how you will accomplish each step that you need to take in order to reach your goal. Most importantly though, I would tell all aspiring astronauts to focus on their study of the subject that they are passionate about. You will never be happier or more successful than when you are doing something that you love.
Astronaut Cady Coleman had this to add about her experience in this article: “The biggest challenge about being involved in the space program is the need to be able to be good at and know a lot about a lot of things,” Coleman says. “It’s not just chemistry anymore.”