What It Takes to Be an Astronaut Mission Specialist

Mission specialists are critical to the operation of the International Space Station, making the career one of the most accessible in space.

Once upon a time, there were just a few good men — all of them military jet pilots — who could qualify to become astronauts. They were considered to be endowed with what author Tom Wolfe characterized as “the right stuff.” That was then.

Today’s astronauts don’t need to be pilots (although it helps). Today’s astronauts aren’t always military veterans (still a great pathway, however). And today’s astronauts can come from space agencies other than NASA.

Want to know what it really takes to earn a berth as a mission specialist, the most common position on the International Space Station, or a ticket to the moon, Mars or beyond? Read on! We’ll dispel a few old myths and give you a concrete path to the stars.

International Space Station
This artist’s digital concept depicts the completely assembled International Space Station passing over Florida. The ISS is a multidisciplinary laboratory, technology test bed and observatory. NASA

What You Can and Cannot Control

The physical requirements to be any type of astronaut (pilot, flight engineer or mission specialist) are cut-and-dried: NASA wants to keep the cost of manufacturing components, particularly spacesuits, down. If you are between the heights of 4 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 3 inches (150 to 190.5 centimeters), you qualify. The European Space Agency accepts candidates who are between 153 and 190 centimeters (that’s 5 feet to 6 feet 2.5 inches). Your vision needs to be correctable to 20/20, and yes, you can have surgery or glasses to make that happen.

As for what you can control, physically speaking, you should be in excellent health and physical condition. Learn to swim. Heck, you might as well learn to scuba dive, because you’ll be practicing most of your extraterrestrial excursions in NASA’s ginormous underwater practice tank at the Johnson Space Center as you train for your mission. Get some deep-woods or desert survival training under your belt too. That’s another make-or-break astronaut skill.

Many astronauts are pilots because they enjoy aviation, so go for basic flight training. You’ll feel all kinds of G-forces during space launches and returns. Aerobatic flight is awesome for teaching you how to focus and keep your lunch down in a rapidly changing 3-D environment.

ISS Crew
Expedition 48 ISS crew: Kate Rubins (NASA), Takuya Onishi (JAXA) and Anatoli Ivanishin (cosmonaut). NASA

To a person, mission specialists are good with tools (who do you think fixes the plumbing and the AC when it goes out?). You’ll need to be handy too, so get practicing.

Quite a few astronauts track through the military in their country of citizenship, and often remain on active duty even in space. There are military pilots, engineers, medical doctors and scientists working for every space agency today.

Finally, every astronaut has at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college, followed by a minimum of three years (often much longer) of work experience and documented success in his or her field. You can pursue any course of study you can dream of, but give it your all, because you’ll be competing for that cherished astronaut position against some of the best and brightest minds of this century. Most astronauts have earned accolades, from military medals and ribbons to patents for inventions and grants for research. They often hold Ph.D.s or are medical doctors with serious research credentials. Even NASA’s teacher-in-space program looks for proven experience in its new hires, so bring your A game to your education and your career if your end goal is getting into a space program.

NASA astronauts in the military are paid at their military paygrade, based on rank. Civilian astronauts start at around $66,000 per year and can earn up to nearly $145,000 per year. Health insurance, family leave and retirement benefits are part of the employment package.

International Space Station
The SpaceX Dragon resupply capsule is seen docked with the International Space Station, with auroras from Earth’s atmosphere behind it. NASA

Taking Applications Now

Space agencies from NASA to ESA are accepting applications for the next generation of space voyagers right now. Start the journey by browsing online for universities with aerospace science programs at the University Aviation Association, or by checking out military options at airforce.com. Commercial space options are just coming online, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is one of several universities offering degree programs in the field. Companies such as SpaceX, The Boeing Co., Airbus, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are anticipating manned missions to lower Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and beyond. If you focus on the right education and experience, you can develop “the right stuff” and end up in a great career in space too.


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