What an Astronaut Does
The name “astronaut” comes from the Greek phrase meaning “space sailor.” These elite few have the pleasure of embarking on space exploration missions, each with a unique goal. Because it costs millions of dollars and requires several years of planning to conduct a single mission, astronauts are expected to be highly educated in a broad spectrum of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Onboard crew must be able to help maintain the craft and carry out various duties that can help their agency gain a better understanding of space and advance technology.
It’s worth noting that there are very few astronauts and cosmonauts (Russian astronauts) worldwide. The US space program (NASA) presently has fewer than 50, while the collective group of European countries which forms the European Space Agency (ESA) has fewer than 20, Roscosmos, the Russian space program has 20, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has just 2. Many of the agencies work together on missions, though certain programs have citizenship requirements that candidates must meet.
Who would enjoy a career in Astronautical Engineering?
Truly brilliant individuals who are in top-notch health and enjoy flight, engineering, and science make good candidates.
Who mightn't like the career?
Because very few people who aspire to become astronauts actually make the cut, those who do not wish to pursue an alternate field that coincides with their “astronaut education” or who would be unhappy with extensive training as well as time away from home would be better served by another career path.
Many astronauts enter into the field as part of their military careers. Candidates, both civilian and military, can further their chances of getting in by studying more than one area, being skilled with computer programs, and learning a second language.
In this field, Russian is generally preferred. Astronauts looking to become pilots are required to undertake 1,000+ hours of flight school. Overall, however, there is no single degree or education that will ensure that a candidate becomes an astronaut. Rather, space programs look for a wide variety of disciplines and many fields of study could be appropriate for an astronaut. It’s more important for the candidate to be a true scholar in his or her chosen field. Bachelor's degrees are acceptable, though preferential treatment is given to those with more advanced degrees.
Those hoping to get into the field are urged by the agencies to focus on academic performance. A strong resume and education are the keys to obtaining a position within any of the space programs. Additional information on requirements and how each program operates can be found on their respective websites.
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- European Space Agency (ESA)
- Canadian Space Agency (CSA)
Moving into Astronautical Engineering from another career
There are many pathways into a career as an astronaut, simply because each mission is performed for a unique reason and therefore requires the assistance of a diverse group of professionals across different sectors.
Role: The term “mission specialist” refers to any type of mission-specific crewmember. These roles and the duties with them will vary based on the needs of a given mission. They may assist with experiment operations as well as perform extravehicular activities and payload handling. Examples of previous mission specialist roles include Payload Commander, Flight Engineer, Educator, Doctor, and Scientist.
Commander & Pilot
Role: The commander is a distinguished pilot, responsible for the entire mission, including safety, the crew, the craft, and the overall success of the mission. Additional pilots are on board to support the commander and man auxiliary vehicles.
Astronauts log more travel than any other profession during missions, and also frequently travel to train, work with other agencies, and to educate the public. However, they are not generally able to accept positions with an alternate space agency due to citizenship requirements.
Mission Specialist: There is not an “average” salary for an astronaut, though NASA reports its civilian astronauts earn anywhere from USD$65,140 to USD$100,701 per year, depending on academic performance and experience. Those working within the ESA begin at the “experienced professional” (A2) paygrade of €55,920 annually and typically reach the “seasoned professional” (A3) paygrade of €69,000 after one flight. The CSA has three levels of pay, with newcomers starting out at around CAD$91,300 per year and those who have completed at least one mission earning CAD$178,400 per year.
Commander & Pilot: NASA USD$65,140 to USD$100,701 per year, ESA €55,920 to €69,000 annually, CSA CAD$91,300 to CAD$178,400 per year.
Why an Astronaut moves on
Once beginning as an astronaut, a health condition as minor as imperfect vision can halt a career. Others leave because their military service has concluded.
It’s important to recognize that very few people actually become astronauts and must find work in a field related to their degree to begin with and many people return to that career afterward, be it as a doctor, scientist, engineer, educator, or other profession. Astronauts who have entered into a program as part of their military career will continue fulfilling their military duties until their service period has ended. Civilians and retired military personnel have a wealth of opportunities following their time astronaut, given the elite nature of the career.