Every year, on Career Day, classrooms are filled with little kids gleefully exclaiming they want to be astronauts when they grow up. Before NASA astronauts were sitting on a vessel, suited up, waiting to take off into space, they were children with the same dreams, too.
“I wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little kid, actually, ” says Colonel Terry Virts, retired NASA astronaut and International Space Station (ISS) commander. “So I had pictures of the space shuttle and galaxies and everything on the wall when I was growing up.”
Becoming an astronaut is still one of the top five career aspirations for children in the US and the UK, and number one for children in China, according to one study.
Before Leroy Chiao, a NASA astronaut, ISS commander and research engineer, Ph.D., embarked on his three Space Shuttle flights and commanded Expedition 10, he was also a kid with a dream.
“I was eight years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon,” says Chiao to ZDNET. “And then going out later and looking at the moon and realizing that out there, almost a quarter of a million miles away, these two astronauts were getting ready to go take those first steps on the moon, that was like, ‘wow, that’s what I want to do.'”
After years of training, making it into orbit was was a life-changing experience for both astronauts.
“Seeing the Earth was more beautiful than I imagined — it was more powerful,” says Virts. “I thought I knew. I mean, I’d seen every movie, I had seen every book, I had been talking to astronauts for 10 years before I flew, and so I thought I was ready for it. But there’s nothing like seeing your planet from space.”
Looking out the window and seeing Earth from space for the first time was an experience that also touched Chiao.
“The realization that I had made it into space, it was a much more emotional moment than I had kind of expected. I dreamed about this since I was a little kid, and here I am. I’m actually up here,” says Chiao.
If that experience sounds great to you, then you might wonder how someone gets to become an astronaut — you might even think of space as a potential workplace. If you dream of becoming an astronaut, here is a look at how you can get there.
How do astronauts prepare for time in space?
Millions of kids might at one point or another dream of space travel, but only a tiny few ever focus on it for a career — and even fewer get anywhere near space.
Astronaut candidates are required to complete training at the Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This training alone takes about two years, according to NASA.
Training can be very exciting and rewarding for astronaut candidates, since it gives them their first exposure to what it takes to achieve their lifelong dream.
“When I showed up at NASA, it was so much fun just to go to classes about flying rockets,” says Virts.
Chiao also found training to be a great experience.
“It was exciting to meet new people — we were all starting this together,” says Chiao. “We were in classes together, both lecture classes to learn about the systems of the space shuttle and the coming space station, and we all went on field trips together to the different NASA stations.”
However, after initial training, there is additional training required for astronauts to complete that’s specific to their mission assignments. These training sessions can be intense and packed with tasks that take a toll both mentally and physically.
Chiao’s training for his first assignment involved about a one-year period with constant, two-week trips to other parts of the world. In addition to managing the constant jetlag and training sessions, the astronauts had to study and get work done in their spare time.
“It’s pretty intense,” says Chiao. “So, once you’re ready to go fly, you’re kind of spent, but of course that doesn’t take away from the thrill of getting into the vehicle, and actually launching into space.”
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Besides the training sessions, the actual missions in space force you to spend long periods of time away from home. Some missions can last as little as two weeks, while others can last closer to a year.
In 2021, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth after spending 355 days in space. Virts’ last flight alone was a whopping 200 days long.
In addition to the time being away from home, there’s the potential health risks involved with going to space. A 2022 study shows that spaceflight may put astronauts at a higher risk of mutations that increase the chances of experiencing heart disease or cancer during their lifetimes.
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“Beyond Low Earth Orbit, space radiation may place astronauts at significant risk for radiation sickness, and increased lifetime risk for cancer, central nervous system effects, and degenerative diseases,” says NASA.
Virts recognizes the risks: “The radiation is definitely an issue. I’ve had a couple of bouts with skin cancer since my first spaceflight,” he says. “You’re getting radiation in space that doesn’t exist on Earth, so that’s part of the deal.”
What does it take to become an astronaut?
The first NASA requirement is being a US citizen, and if you check that mark, your next step is getting a master’s degree in a STEM field (check out NASA’s approved degrees first) at an accredited institution. The final requirement is a minimum of two years of relevant professional experience or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft, according to NASA.
All of the requirements listed above are the minimum requirements, and are of course no way near enough to guarantee you a spot. Even if you have all of the above qualifications, you’ll be up against thousands of other people who also dream of becoming astronauts — so you have to make sure you exceed the expectations.
For the 2021 Astronaut Candidate Class, 12,000 people applied and only 10 were selected, according to NASA. So, what are some career choices you can make to increase your chances of getting selected?
A common path for many astronauts is flying jets as fighter pilots prior to going to space.
When Virts was pursuing his dream of becoming an astronaut, he read The Right Stuff, a book that includes the stories of the first astronauts to be selected for NASA’s Project Mercury. After realizing that those men were fighter pilots and test pilots, and eventually astronauts, he took the same route.
“Flying is the most important thing you can do,” says Virts. “Just get a private pilot’s license, and — if you’re in the military, test pilot or fighter pilot — that’s the best way you can train to be an astronaut. Even if you’re a scientist, go get your private pilot’s license.”
Chiao initially almost took the fighter pilot route as well and joined the Air Force ROTC as a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley. However, before he committed himself to the Air Force, a physical exam revealed that his left eye was no longer 20/20, and therefore he couldn’t commit.
He chose another route and pursued academia instead. Chiao graduated with a degree in chemical engineering at Berkeley and then attended the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.
Although the minimum requirement to apply is a master’s degree, having a Ph.D. can be a key way to make yourself stand out.
“You get 12,000 applications, and you just need some way to [make it to the top] 500, and a Ph.D. is an easy way to do that,” says Virts.
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Of course, it’s important to pick a career that aligns with your end goal of becoming an astronaut. However, it is also important to be realistic about the odds — which aren’t exactly in your favor. Pick a career that will fulfill you, even if you don’t get picked.
Before becoming astronauts, Chiao enjoyed his technical career in engineering and Virts enjoyed his career flying F-16s for the Air Force.
“If you pin all your hopes on getting selected, and you never are, and you hate what you’re doing — well, that is just a lousy situation to be in,” says Chiao. “So, you really have to pursue something that you love and you find rewarding, and that also qualifies you to apply.”
Make sure your application stands out
Even though candidates might have the career and educational requirements under their belts, it still doesn’t mean they are a shoe-in for the position. Many of the applicants likely have good grades from reputable universities, flight experiences, and multiple degrees on their resumes. So, what can you do to stand out?
The first thing is to include something that makes you different and shows how well-rounded you are.
“For me, I had done an exchange with the French Air Force Academy, and I spoke French, minored in French, and I think that’s why I got picked, because I had foreign language skills,” says Virts.
In addition to the skills you have, interesting life experiences can be worth sharing because they set you apart from other applicants and might be enough to make your application get pulled up for the next round.
“My last job before I retired a few years ago was going through these applications, and they’re all the same,” says Virts. “I remember this one lady had been a race car mechanic. And I was like, ‘wow, that’s interesting.'”
“Being an astronaut is about doing operational things,” Virts adds, explaining why an unusual background like race car mechanic can add value. “You don’t sit around and think about equations and write them on blackboards — you’re doing stuff.”
Another part of the application that is worth paying attention to is your references. Think about who knows you best.
“What really differentiates candidates from each other is what other people have to say about them,” says Chiao. “Everybody can write a good resume, but really what it comes down to is what do other people think of you?”
As much as you might be tempted to pick the most accomplished person you know to be your referrer, if that person won’t be able to really give the interviewer a true glimpse of who you are, then you may as well have left that section blank.
“Don’t just list famous people who really don’t know you,” adds Chiao. “Maybe you took a class from a Nobel laureate, and you got an A, but all the Nobel laureate is going to say about you is, ‘Oh, well, so-and-so took my class and earned an A.'”
If after reading this, you’re still interested in becoming an astronaut, you are in luck: the space industry is busier than ever. The opportunities to travel into space — with NASA, alongside other space agencies from around the globe, or as part of a commercial venture — are growing by the day.
“If you want to get into space, now’s a great time to do it,” says Virts.