I’m surprised I’ve come this far without writing a post about how to become an astronaut. As I’ve mentioned several times over the course of this blog, I have no interest in becoming an astronaut myself, but I have read a lot about the process. Since we’re in America, I’ll be pulling my information mostly from NASA, though I suspect most space programs have similar requirements.
On its website, NASA only lists a few requirements. There are slight requirement differences between “Commander and Pilot” astronauts and “Mission Specialist” astronauts, but the basics are the same: candidates must (1) have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics and (2) be able to pass a physical (including standards for vision, blood pressure, and height*). So, if you’re shorter than 4’10.5” or taller than 6’4”, if you’re colorblind, or if you have some type of serious medical condition, you’re out of luck. To be a commander/pilot you need to have had 1,000 hours in command of a jet, and to be a mission specialist you need at least 3 years of “related, progressively responsible, professional experience” related to your degree, but all that’s a piece of cake, right? (Just a heads up, your master’s degree only counts as one year of experience.)
All kidding aside, even though these “basic” requirements are nothing to sneeze at, there are probably a lot of people in American who fit this criteria. I’m not going to try to make up a number, but I’m sure everyone reading this knows of some people who could theoretically apply. “Theoretically” is the key word here, because everyone who applies is smart, driven, and in shape both mentally and physically. (From some of the reading I’ve done, the physical training for astronauts is hard. Like get-dropped-in-the-middle-of-the-frozen-tundra-with-barely-any-supplies-and-survive hard. To say astronauts are “in shape” is an understatement.)
Take a look at the background info of the 8 astronaut candidates selected in 2013 (after a year-and-a-half search) from a pool of over 6,000 applicants and tell me you’re not intimidated. (Did I say intimidated? I meant impressed. But also intimidated.) Notice also how 6 of the 8 have a background in the Armed Forces. Service in the Armed Forces remains a common path to becoming an astronaut, though civilians are allowed to apply and often are accepted.
Here’s a screenshot of a (slightly outdated) timeline of the application from NASA’s website.
To finish the post off, here are some “insider tips” I found online—a worthwhile read, if you’re at all interested.
*The height requirement may be surprising to some, but there’s good reason for it. Chris Hadfield alludes to the reasoning in his autobiography: NASA astronauts used to go to space aboard space shuttles, but the space shuttle program ended in 2011. Currently, the only way for our astronauts to get to space is via the Russian Soyuz vessels, which are significantly smaller than space shuttles. Astronauts taller than the limit simply cannot fit safely in the Soyuz (and I presume anyone shorter is also unable to fit properly in the harness).