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How to become an astronaut

For most of us, a career as an astronaut seems out of reach. It’s true that astronauts have to be highly qualified in a specialist academic field, and training programmes only recruit every once in a while. And even for those who are qualified, the chances of becoming an astronaut are limited.

But for many people, the biggest barrier to becoming an astronaut is deciding to put in an application.

In this guide, we explore how to become an astronaut to help you understand more about this career and how you can pursue it. We cover what the role involves as well as the qualifications and skills you need to apply.

'Every wondered how to become an astronaut? Check out this guide.'

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What is an astronaut?

Exterior of International Space Station with two astronauts
Astronauts carrying out maintenance work on the ISS

An astronaut is a person who travels into space to conduct experiments and pilot spacecraft. Today, astronauts typically spend time aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with colleagues from around the world. In Europe, astronauts usually employed and trained by the European Space Agency (ESA), although the UK Space Agency also offers opportunities from time to time.

There are only a small number of astronauts in the world and recruitment by the UK Space Agency and ESA happens very infrequently – around once a decade. Competition is very high so the chances of getting a place are very small. However, astronauts need advanced academic qualifications in the sciences or medicine – so you could choose to pursue a career in one of these fields and apply for an astronaut programme when opportunities come up.

Astronauts undertake several years of training before being ready to join a space mission. They typically work around 40 hours per week on Earth and space missions are intensive and demanding, and could last from six months to a year.

The first British astronaut was Helen Sharman, who joined the UK/Soviet joint mission, Juno. She spent eight days in space in 1991 and visited the Mir Space Station. Tim Peake was the first British recruit to join the ESA astronaut programme. He spent six months living aboard the ISS and took part in a spacewalk.

Check out this video from the ESA to see how to become an astronaut:

What does an astronaut do?

Astronauts carry out a wide range of tasks and duties, usually relating to their specialist field and the purpose of the mission, which could be to learn about climate change or the impact of low gravity on the human body. Astronauts also have to perform routine duties to maintain the spacecraft and the life support systems on board, and to keep themselves fit and healthy.

  • Maintaining and fixing air filters, oxygen production systems, water systems and waste processors.
  • Perform scientific experiments and collect data and images of Earth from space.
  • Leave the spacecraft and conduct “Extra Vehicular Activity” or a spacewalk to repair damage outside.
  • Communicate with people back home, including the media and mission controllers.
  • Carry out daily exercise to prevent the bones and muscles wasting away.
  • Take blood and other samples from astronauts to monitor their health.

On Earth, astronauts are “ambassadors” for the space programme and must make frequent appearances in the media and have a strong social media presence too.

ESA astronauts conduct most of their training at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany. Here, they undertake one year of basic training. This covers the fundamentals of various engineering and science disciplines, training for a pilot’s licence, spaceflight training and even survival techniques. ESA astronauts also learn Russian so they can communicate more easily with their many colleagues from Russia’s advanced space programme.

An astronaut spacewalking
An astronaut doing extra vehicular activity (EVA) - aka
the "spacewalk"

What skills do I need?

Astronauts need a range of advanced skills, including:

What qualifications do I need?

Astronauts don’t need to have experience of the space sector, but they do need to have a master’s degree or higher in a science, engineering, computer science or maths subject, or in medicine. Alternatively, they must be a qualified experimental test pilot.

If you would like to go into space, you will need to select STEM A-levels and specialise in one of these at university, before completing a master’s degree. Alternatively, you could study medicine. Any of these routes will lead you into an exciting and rewarding career in its own right, and qualify you to apply to an astronaut training programme when a vacancy comes up in the next few years.

What experience do I need?

The ESA also states that astronauts must have three years of professional experience in their chosen field. They must also be able to demonstrate that they have progressed and increased their responsibilities during their career.

In their latest programmes, both the ESA and UK Space Agency are encouraging applications for people with physical disabilities. The ESA is advertising an opportunity specifically for astronauts with physical disabilities.

How much will I earn?

You can expect to earn between £40,000 - £86,000 as an astronaut.

If you’re excited by the possibility of a career as an astronaut, check out our guide to a whole range of jobs in the space sector.

Images: Lead image ESA–L. Parmitano, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, via Wikimedia Commons