How to Become an Astronaut: Steps to Take from High School
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- What Does an Astronaut Do?
- Astronaut Salary
- How to Become an Astronaut: Steps to Take from High School
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the moon. More than half a century later, we know far more about space — but there is still so much to be discovered.
If you dream of exploring space, you are not alone. Many people aspire to become astronauts, but few ultimately make the cut. Wondering what the path to the stars is like? Here’s what it takes to become an astronaut.
What Does an Astronaut Do?
Being an astronaut is not just about launching into space. While astronauts undergo specialized training for missions, they spend the majority of their time on the ground. Training includes survival and disaster preparation, exercise, activities, tool operation, and more. Astronauts are also tasked with performing general space station maintenance.
Astronauts on space missions are assigned specific roles. A commander leads the mission, while mission specialists use their STEM knowledge to finetune mission details. In addition, a pilot comes on board during a mission to prepare the crew, focus on technical operations, and take on the role of assistant commander. In some cases, an individual needs to be prepared to complete the task assigned to both the commander and the pilot.
According to NASA, salaries for civilian astronaut candidates depend on their grade (GS-12 through GS-13), which is determined by their academic achievements and experience. The starting salary for GS-12 is $65,140, and a GS-13 may earn up to $100,701 annually.
How to Become an Astronaut: Steps to Take from High School
Astronauts are required to practically apply a wide range of STEM knowledge. In high school, you should focus on studying math and science. Take the most rigorous courses in these subjects available to you. Courses may include (but are not limited to): AP Calculus BC, AP Physics, and AP Chemistry. Demonstrate leadership and interest in STEM disciplines outside the classroom as well! This can include taking on an independent research project, applying for a STEM-intensive summer program, or engaging in extracurriculars to strengthen your technical and programming skills.
For example, you might take coding classes, develop an app, or participate in a robotics club. You could also enter competitions — Regeneron Science Talent Search and the Google Science Fair are just a couple examples.
You should also work on honing additional skills, such as communication and critical thinking. These soft skills will serve you well in practically any career, and as an astronaut, problem-solving, quick thinking, and effective communication are crucial. So, don’t ignore courses like English and foreign languages, which will help you develop these fundamental competencies!
Astronauts must have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, science, or mathematics. Simply put, this profession is extremely competitive. You will need to maintain an exemplary academic record; which includes earning high marks in rigorous courses. Like in high school, you should prioritize extracurricular activities, jobs and internships in STEM-fields that will prepare you for the technical work on the field.
Also, get to know your professors! This will help you gain connections in the aeronautical/aerospace field. Do not be afraid to reach out to them about potential research opportunities or laboratory work. At the end of the day, you will need strong references for graduate schools, and, ultimately, when you are applying to become an astronaut.
When preparing to apply for college, look for universities that have strong programs in STEM disciplines. You can use CollegeVine’s free school-search tool to find colleges that are good fits and learn your real odds of being admitted with our chancing engine. Our free chancing engine uses your specific profile, including your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and more, to calculate your chances of acceptance at hundreds of schools across the country.
In most cases, you will need a master’s degree in a STEM discipline to become an astronaut. Alternatively, you may complete two years of a doctoral program, secure a medical doctorate, or have performed 1,000+ hours as a pilot in command of a jet aircraft.
Again, whichever route you choose, you must demonstrate extraordinary talent and aptitude in your work and studies.
In addition to education and experience requirements, you’ll be expected to meet some additional requirements. For example, you must be within a certain height range (5’2”-6’3”) and meet certain physical standards.
Physical strength is necessary for the role. You will be asked to complete a physical training and exercise program. This program will do mission simulations, preparation for emergency scenarios, a swim test, and a certification process for scuba diving. You will continue your academic studies as well. As part of your classroom work, you will learn Russian. After this, trainees need to complete advanced mission training. Even after all of that, you will still have a bit of a wait before you can embark on your first mission.
Here is a rough timeline of your journey to becoming an astronaut:
- Apply to the Astronaut Candidate program.
- Pass a preliminary screening.
- If accepted, you will participate in a training program for about two years.
Remember that becoming an astronaut is enormously competitive. NASA reports that it receives an average of more than 4,000 applications for around 20 open positions every two years. But if you succeed you’ll be one of the few people in the world who knows space firsthand.