How to Become an Astronaut (Duties, Salary and Steps)

The sky isn't the limit when it comes to this career.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Astronaut in space

With countries once again exploring the possibilities of sending people into space, being an astronaut is starting to regain traction as an exciting and rewarding career in science. Astronauts don’t just command spacecraft; they sometimes simply work aboard them, fulfilling support roles and taking part in plenty of activities on the ground to prepare for future space flights.

Becoming an astronaut is challenging, but with the space and aeronautics industries booming, there are more opportunities than ever before to become an astronaut. This article takes you through the steps to become an astronaut, as well as covering in more detail what this “out of this world” role entails.

What astronauts do

Astronauts are not necessarily defined as pilots of spacecraft, although this might be part of what some are required to do. Being an astronaut refers to any job conducted in space or regarding space work, whether that is an aerospace engineer, a scientist, or even just an observer or a space tourist. Nevertheless, the reality is that astronauts will spend more of their time on the ground rather than in space, with many tasks needing to be performed ‘in practice’ in laboratories and simulations, as well as in real life aboard spacecraft or on the International Space Station. The below list outlines the most common roles and responsibilities of astronauts. 

  • Operating or piloting spacecraft.
  • Monitoring and evaluating spacecraft systems and processes.
  • Conducting spacewalks or operations in orbit.
  • Running experiments and scientific tests on spacecraft.
  • Testing spacecraft or participating in simulations.
  • Working in close confines with team members inside the spacecraft.
  • Communicating with people back on earth on a regular basis. 
  • Interacting with the media.
  • Installing, maintaining, or repairing equipment, software and hardware. 
  • Contributing to daily life inside the spacecraft, such as making food and clearing out waste systems. 

What the job is like

There are few working environments as unique as an astronaut’s. The role has some very specific challenges, and it can be a dangerous job. Despite this, being an astronaut can be incredibly exciting, and is often regarded as an aspirational or dream role by many. This section reviews the astronaut’s working environment, hours, and job satisfaction.

Work environment

Astronauts must work aboard very cramped spacecraft, often exposed to significant limitations in creature comforts. Conditions might be very cold or very hot, and simple, day-to-day tasks like eating or going to the bathroom are conducted in very unusual ways.

The role is very risky, too, as astronauts can be exposed to radiation from the sun, as well be at risk from various accidents that can occur on the ground and aboard spacecraft, such as accidents during launch or re-entry, as well as being hit by debris or equipment being affected by component failures. You will be asked to work in close proximity to your colleagues for many months, and this can be very hard work as well, especially in such a cut-off environment where connections with the outside world might be limited to only a few minutes every day. 

Work hours

When aboard their spacecraft, astronauts will be subject to work periods and rest breaks like many other workers. The nature of piloting spacecraft or interacting with their complicated systems means that taking time to rest and sleep is very important, in the same way commercial aviation pilots have to take scheduled rest breaks, too.

That said, the work-life balance of an astronaut is, well, not that balanced. You will be away from friends and family for months at a time, and in some cases, for over a year. The time demands of astronaut training or missions means that even when you are on the ground, you might only be given limited time to go on leave. You will also be only given limited chances to speak with your family when on missions. 

Job satisfaction

Being an astronaut is a dream job for many, and the chance to visit outer space and experience things very few people ever get the chance to do is a draw that, for many, will outweigh the pains and risks of the role. In fact, US space agency NASA has only had one astronaut resign in over fifty years!

Space agencies are viewed as great places to work. Salaries can be high, and people are drawn there for the chance to contribute to historic projects and further mankind’s achievements. NASA is consistently ranked as one of the happiest companies in America, as well as the best rated government agency for employee satisfaction. Now, with more and more private space agencies emerging (like SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk), competition to keep their people happy will be more fierce than ever before. 

Job market

There are not many job opportunities out there for aspiring astronauts. In fact, this one role is probably the least represented in the entire aerospace profession. As space exploration opens up, with the US planning to land back on the moon this decade, and various private-sector space programs being launched, there are more opportunities to become an astronaut.

Nevertheless, the job market remains very constrained. Role locations are also very limited, with most astronaut roles being based near launch sites or headquarters, such as Washington DC, California, Florida, or Texas, for NASA astronaut roles. 


Astronaut salaries are quite varied, depending on the organization that employs them. For NASA astronauts, salaries and pay grades are in line with other high-ranking government roles. The average annual salaries start at $65,140 and are capped at $100,701 annually.

Private space companies, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, haven’t published their astronaut salaries or base pay, but they are likely to be much higher than NASA’s, due to fewer constraints on budgets that public organizations are subjected to. Whichever way you look at it, the average salary for an astronaut is much higher than the US’ average salary of $58,260 per annum. 

Essential skills and qualities

Becoming an astronaut will require mastery of plenty of skills, as well as being assessed on them regularly and thoroughly. In addition to these skills and attributes, you will need to have excellent fitness and sensory ability, such as excellent hearing and eyesight. Here is a list of the top skills and qualities needed to become an astronaut: 

Steps to become an astronaut

Becoming an astronaut takes a lot of preparation that might begin from early on in your education and career. The role is competitive and only the best of the best are selected to become an astronaut. People can transfer from their current roles to train as an astronaut, but one common career path to being an astronaut is beginning as a military pilot and going from there. Given that becoming a military pilot is also a challenging role to get into, this will give you an indication as to what you might be facing to become an astronaut. This section takes you over the various steps needed to move into this very exciting role. 

Step 1: Determine if it’s the right job for you

It is important to be aware of the risks and challenges associated with becoming an astronaut, as these can be significant and are non-negotiable, given the complexities of the role. Once you have reflected on this, take some time to think about whether your career interests and skills are a good match for the job. Not only should your natural abilities and the skills you enjoy using align to the skills and qualities listed above, but you should also have a natural interest in space and space travel, as well as scientific curiosity and a yearning to see the world. If you don’t have these interests, then the role might not be that aligned to your values.

If you have critiqued your skills and interests and are still not sure which is the best career for you, then it might be a good idea to take a career test. One example of this is CareerHunter’s six-stage career assessment, which analyzes your skills and interests, recommending career paths based on these, as well as the training and expertise needed to excel in these careers. It’s well worth a shot if you are wondering what a best-fit job might be. 

Step 2: Meet the basic requirements

The first practical steps to becoming an astronaut is to understand and ensure you comply with the basic entry requirements and academic achievements to become one. These are specific and very strict. Every national space agency and private space company will have their own entry conditions, but here is a list of NASA’s astronaut requirements

  • US nationality.
  • Master’s degree in a Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics — STEM-related field
  • Two years of professional experience related to the above degree field, or 1000 flying command hours in a jet aircraft. 
  • Pass NASA’s extensive physical examination.

It’s worth noting that entry to NASA’s astronaut program is exceptionally competitive. In 2016, over eighteen thousand people applied and only eleven people were selected!

Step 3: Get educated

As mentioned above, the educational requirements to be a NASA astronaut are a master’s degree in a STEM-related subject. Due to the competitiveness of the astronaut program, good grades — in fact, the best grades — are the best guarantee of making it to the subsequent rounds of selection.

Nevertheless, there are other ways to reach this educational requirement. NASA will also accept two years’ worth of work towards a doctorate program in a STEM field, or a completed Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree, or the completion of a nationally recognized test pilot school program.

Step 4: Apply for NASA’s candidate selection

NASA’s candidate selection is arduous and challenging. It takes around two years to complete, so get ready for the long haul! After the set application window (usually in March), the summer is spent reviewing astronaut candidates to get a shortlist of highly qualified people, with references being taken up shortly after that. Interviews and assessments (including military vetting and the infamous medical examination) take place a year or so after applying for the role. Second-round interviews happen in early Fall of year two, with the final selection occurring later that season. The selected astronauts are announced in the winter of year two.

Applications are routed through the US’ federal government jobs website, and it is the same for civilian or military applicants. You must ensure your application presentation is perfect for the application process, but many incumbent astronauts have said that this is not enough of a distinction to guarantee success in the process. A passion for what astronauts do is a must-have in order to truly succeed and impress the recruitment team. 

Step 5: Train for flight

Once you are selected, you are put through two years of astronaut training, including various examinations and assessments to ensure you are of the right standard to begin space operations. Astronaut training begins with training at the Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. This training includes military water survival, SCUBA qualifications, swimming tests, hyperbaric and hypobaric pressure assessments, and an introduction to low- or zero-gravity flights.

Formal training begins after this. In this stage, trainee astronauts are trained on how to operate various spacecraft systems and conduct full-scale simulations of these. Assessments are frequent and strict, and failure will result in removal from the program.

Final thoughts

Becoming an astronaut is an aspirational and incredible job, one that gives you way more than seeing the world from a new perspective. A lot of astronaut activity takes place on the ground and is heavily weighted in the application of STEM principles, with only a small amount of time spent in space flight. Nevertheless, this is an exciting role with more competition than ever before, with only 43 NASA astronauts on active duty.

Becoming an astronaut takes years of hard work, dedication, and good grades. Competition to be an astronaut is fierce and you must ensure all elements of your education and professional life are well-homed in order to maximize your chances of success. However, if you are well-prepared and have a passion for space travel, then the sky isn’t your limit!

Are you considering this career path? What makes you want to become an astronaut? Let us know in the comments!

Originally posted 24 October 2018.