UPDATE 2 MARCH 2020: This article was written prior to the announcement of NASA’s updated educational requirements for Astronaut Candidates. A Master’s degree with two years of relevant work experience is now a requirement. For a full explanation of the updated requirements, please see the job listing on USAJobs.
If there’s one place you’re almost certain to encounter an astronaut it’s NASA’ s Johnson Space Center. JSC is home to the astronaut corps and the people that select this elite group of men and women.
Throughout my time at NASA, both as a co-op during my college years and now as a full-time employee, I’ve had the opportunity to work and speak with current and former astronauts and even the very woman in charge of the astronaut selection process. Many people are surprised to find that the basic requirements to apply are fairly straightforward.
All astronauts can be lumped into two categories: pilot or non-pilot. The following are a list of minimum requirements that must be met before applying. Click here for more information.
- A Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science, or mathematics. Degrees in technology, psychology, nursing, aviation, social sciences, exercise physiology are considered non-qualifying.
- At least 3 years of relevant, progressively responsible professional experience OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in a high performance jet aircraft (these are generally your military pilots who often happen to be graduates of a military test pilot school). Advanced degrees are desirable (and almost certainly increase your changes of being selected) and can be substituted for years of experience (Master’s degree=1 year of experience, Ph.D.=3 years of experience).
- Ability to pass NASA’s long-duration astronaut physical which is very comprehensive and from what I’m told, often the largest hurdle to clear once a person has made it to the interview portion of the application process.
Interestingly, military helicopter pilots are considered non-pilot astronauts. Take Shane Kimbrough, Sunita (Suni) Williams, and Anne McClain as examples. Civilian applicants must apply during an open application period through USAJOBS (www.usajobs.gov) and active duty military members must submit applications both through this site and to their respective military service.
It may not come as a surprise that NASA looks for many of the same traits in its astronaut candidates that any employer values when interviewing candidates for a position. Leadership, teamwork, and good communication skills are all important to the selection committee. Current astronauts themselves sit on the selection board to provide insight into whether they believe an applicant is the right fit for the job. After all, they want to be sure to select people they’d have to work with (and tolerate!) for extended periods of 6 months to a year, or even more as we look towards Mars.
So what’s the secret?
Every astronaut I’ve ever spoken to for tips about being selected (namely Shane Kimbrough and Karen Nyberg) has had almost the same answer. Choose a career and hobbies that you love. Every astronaut I’ve come across will tell you that they are extremely lucky to have been selected. NASA is not seeking a group of people looking to check boxes off a list of requirements, but rather those who are passionate about what they do. Do not get an engineering degree, join the military, or get a pilot’s license solely for the purpose of boosting your resume for the astronaut program. This is likely to lead to a lifetime of unhappiness. I am of the opinion that passion is what makes you the best at what you do. This is why the list of requirements seems so simple and attainable-there is no ideal person for this job. NASA wants a passionate and diverse group in order to build the best team for its missions. NASA currently has 38 active astronauts. The chances of being selected, especially on a first attempt, are not impossible but the chances are not immediately stacked in your favor. NASA wants people who, although obviously disappointed, are so passionate about what they do they would be happy in the careers they’re currently in whether they were to be selected or not. In fact, people often apply many times before they are selected. Clayton Anderson was rejected 14 times before finally being selected in 1998.
Applications for the Astronaut Candidate Program typically open about every 4 years these days. It is reasonable to assume the next call for applications will occur sometime around 2021. I’m definitely applying next time they open up, will you?!