How to Become an Astronaut and What to Study for This Career

If you dream of exploring faraway places, there are few journeys more fun to imagine than the prospect of space travel.

Escaping Earth’s orbit and seeing the planet from a distance is such an overwhelming experience that it is hard to come up with an adjective that is adequate to describe how it feels, according to retired astronaut Col. Mike Mullane, author of “Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut.”

As a 12-year-old, he watched the Sputnik launch, and that was when he decided to work in the space industry and to try his best to become an astronaut. “All my energy was focused,” he says, adding that aspiring astronauts should “be tenacious.”

[Read: How to Become an Astronomer and Why.]

His son, Patrick Mullane — author of “The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing Up an Astronaut’s Kid in the Glorious 80s” — emphasizes that becoming an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, is so difficult that no one should count on being able to do it. There’s a lot of luck involved in securing such a coveted job, he says.

The Extraordinary Selectivity of the NASA Astronaut Program

“If you get the win, don’t be arrogant about it, because it could have been somebody else, and if you get the loss, make sure you don’t internalize it — that you’re a failure and you didn’t get to do what you wanted to do and can’t do anything else,” says Patrick Mullane, who also is executive director of Harvard Business School Online.

Mike Mullane, an inductee in the International Space Hall of Fame, notes that many people were as qualified to be an astronaut as he was, yet he got the job while they did not. “If you’re an astronaut, you had an element of luck that put you there,” he says.

[READ: What Can You Do With a Physics Degree?]

The last time NASA posted a job advertisement for astronaut positions, in 2020, the agency received more than 12,000 applications during the application period of March 2-31. The chosen class of astronauts will begin training this summer.

During the 2020 application cycle, NASA received the second highest number of astronaut applications it had ever received, second only to the prior application cycle when 18,300 individuals applied. But when comparing the number of applications received in 2020 with the prior application cycle, it should be noted that the 2020 application period was only half as long as the prior one, and the academic requirements were stricter in 2020.

Retired NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, an NFL Hall of Fame inductee, explains that it takes longer for some astronauts to get chosen by NASA than others. He notes that while he applied to the astronaut program only once, some people apply many times before getting selected.

What Astronauts Do in Space and on Earth

Astronauts play a crucial role in NASA’s scientific research.

“Our job is to work together with people from all over the world to build vehicles and spacecraft to safely live in the space environment to explore the Universe,” Melvin wrote in an email. “We do cutting edge biological and material research that can save lives on Earth as well as observe the Earth and monitor changes as we fly around the planet every 90 minutes.”

Former astronauts say that they were constantly collaborating with their colleagues during their time as astronauts. They note that a team spirit is crucial for anyone who wants to get this type of position, since NASA screens out job candidates who convey arrogance. The humility to recognize what one does not know is also vital for this job, as is the ability to quickly learn new skills.

Former NASA astronaut Charles Camarda says one of the most exciting aspects of becoming an astronaut was getting to use some of the space technology he and his colleagues had designed in a laboratory.

“We very rarely get to experience how this is used in space, how it is tested in space and so, for me, this was an engineer’s dream,” says Camarda, a research engineer who has bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in engineering.

Being an astronaut is exciting for anyone who likes to design and build technology because the job involves testing the limits of what technology can do, says Camarda, who previously served as a senior adviser for innovation at NASA. He notes that the extreme environment in space forces engineers to be creative. Lack of gravity in outer space poses significant challenges when performing everyday tasks.

An astronaut’s work is not restricted to when he or she is in space, according to NASA. “When astronauts are not flying on a mission or training for a mission, they support other missions,” the NASA website states. “There are many jobs on the ground required to support the design, preparation, training and flying of a space mission.”

Stephanie Schierholz, a public affairs officer for the human exploration and operations branch of NASA, says that preparing and recovering from missions is a time-consuming process.

“On Earth, astronauts participate in training to ensure proficiency for their missions,” she explained in an email. “Typically, astronauts spend years training for a mission, then spend about six months aboard the International Space Station during a mission, and spend time reconditioning afterward.”

Schierholz notes that astronauts typically conduct science experiments during their missions. “The space station is an orbiting laboratory, and the astronauts aboard typically support about 250 different research investigations during their six-month mission,” she says.

How to Qualify for a Job as an Astronaut

A refusal to give up is a quality that is generally necessary to become an astronaut, according to individuals who have gotten this job. Camarda notes that he traveled to space after overcoming claustrophobia and a fear of heights.

Getting a graduate degree in a technical academic discipline is vital for future NASA astronauts, since teams of astronauts must be able to work together to resolve technical problems that arise on spacecraft, says Camarda, an adjunct faculty member in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering.

The minimum qualifications necessary to become an astronaut are listed on NASA’s website. In order to become a NASA astronaut, someone needs to be a U.S. citizen and must earn a master’s degree in biological science, physical science, computer science, engineering or math. In lieu of the master’s degree requirement, a candidate can have a medical degree, complete a test pilot program at a nationally recognized pilot school or spend two years as a doctoral student within a science, technology, engineering or math field.

Melvin, for example, had earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Richmond in Virginia and a master’s degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia.

Mike Mullane earned a bachelor’s degree in military engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the United States Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio. He also graduated from the Air Force Flight Test Engineer School.

[Read: A Guide to Pilot School and How to Become a Pilot.]

Technical education alone is not sufficient to become eligible for an astronaut career. In addition to academic credentials, an aspiring astronaut needs either two years of relevant work experience or 1,000 hours of flight time as a pilot-in-command on a jet aircraft. Plus, he or she must be able to pass a physical.

Former astronauts say one advantage of trying to enter this competitive profession is that the credentials necessary are marketable for many other desirable positions, including research scientist positions and engineering jobs.

“You should choose a field of study that is of interest to you; this will ensure that, whatever course your career takes, you will be prepared to do something that is personally satisfying,” Schierholz wrote in an email.

How Long It Takes to Become an Astronaut and What It’s Like to Be One

“Astronaut candidates undergo a training and evaluation period lasting approximately two years, during which time they will participate in the basic Astronaut Candidate training program, which is designated to develop the knowledge and skills required for formal mission training upon selection for a flight,” Schierholz explains.

Astronaut candidates must pass a swim test and subsequently become scuba certified to prepare them for spacewalk training, she adds.

According to Schierholz, astronauts are paid at either a GS-13 or GS-14 level. That translates to annual salaries ranging from $104,898 to $161,141. An astronaut’s precise salary depends on his or her credentials and experience.

Bravery is necessary to choose this career path, experts say. “Living in space is not without risk,” Schierholz emphasizes. “Human spaceflight is risky, and spacewalks are amongst the riskiest activities astronauts undertake during a mission.”

Camarda says astronauts tend to be self-driven. “If I have to think of creative ways to inspire people to become astronauts, those are the wrong people. Those are not the people you want for the job. They have to have that inspiration from within.”

Astronauts are the sort of people who are emboldened when others tell them something is impossible and who are eager to pursue moonshot ambitions, Camarda says.

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

More from U.S. News

How to Evaluate Different Types of Engineering Degrees, Jobs

What Can You Do With a Computer Science Degree?

45 Graduate Degree Jobs That Can Pay More Than $100K

How to Become an Astronaut and What to Study for This Career originally appeared on

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up