The Job and What's Involved

Astronauts are trained to travel and work in space. Currently, the main focus of human space activities is the International Space Station. Astronauts fly and dock space vehicles at the station and carry out scientific research and technical activities onboard.

Tasks include carrying out scientific experiments or installing, maintaining and repairing the space station.

There are three main types of astronaut:

Mission specialists, whose main duty is to carry out technical tasks or scientific research onboard the spacecraft.

Flight engineers, who carry out technical tasks or scientific research onboard the space station

Pilots, who fly the space vehicles.

There are fewer pilots than mission specialists and flight engineers.

Scientific research in space includes:

  • Exploring nature, studying the effects of weightlessness and radiation in space.
  • Observing the earth, mapping phenomena such as the ozone layer and monitoring climate change.
  • Improving health, carrying out human physiology experiments on astronauts to study the effects of weightlessness on the human body and to contribute to solving health problems on Earth.
  • Innovating technologies and processes, studying materials science and fluid physics to help develop new technologies and materials.
  • Caring for the environment, developing life support systems for use in the spacecraft that can also lead to technologies for waste treatment and recycling.

All astronauts use hi-tech equipment in their work. This includes laboratory apparatus, as well as communications equipment and technical tools that are adapted for use in space.

As well as carrying out work tasks in space, several hours of an astronaut's day are spent using exercise machines to limit the effects of muscle and bone deterioration. Astronauts must also carry out daily chores, such as cleaning and maintaining the spacecraft.

When not on a space flight mission, astronauts carry out related work, give ground support to other astronauts' missions and prepare for future missions.

European astronauts are based at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, although they may be sent to Houston in Texas or Star City in Moscow, for extended training periods. In Cologne, they mostly work around 37 hours a week, Monday to Friday.

Astronauts might only experience a few space missions in their career. When on a mission, astronauts work to fixed schedules, and each day is planned in detail to allocate time for work, exercise, eating and sleeping.

On long space missions, astronauts work for about ten hours a day for five days and then have two days off. On short missions, they often work longer hours.

The work is physically and mentally demanding. Some work can also be physically exhausting, e.g. spacewalking. Astronauts must be able to carry out their work in a weightless environment, which affects the body. For example, they may experience disorientation and some loss of bone and muscle tissue although, with proper physical training, the effect is minimal.

The starting salary for European astronauts may be around £46,000 a year. An experienced astronaut may earn around £54,000 a year.

The highest salary for an astronaut may be around £74,000 a year.

Additional allowances may be available, for example, for the education of astronauts' children.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The European Space Agency (ESA) selects and trains European astronauts for the European Astronaut Corps. The UK is a member of ESA and, therefore, UK nationals can apply for its astronaut programme when ESA is recruiting.

Traditionally, it has been difficult for UK candidates to be successful in recruitment programmes, as recruitment is linked to funding and the UK only funds unmanned space missions at present.

Entry to the training programme is lengthy and extremely competitive.

Until recently, there were only eight European astronauts in the European Astronaut Corps. In May 2009, six new recruits were announced. Although opportunities to become an astronaut are very limited, the wider space industry supports 70,000 people and offers a range of jobs.

The Space Careers website lists job vacancies in the wider international aerospace industry, including those in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), although only US citizens can become astronauts with NASA.

Education and Training

To become an astronaut, candidates must normally have a degree at Masters level or, preferably, a doctorate in a natural science subject, medicine, engineering, information technology or mathematics. They should ideally also have at least three years' professional experience in a relevant field. Flying experience is useful.

The entry requirements for relevant degrees are a minimum of two A levels with at least five GCSE's (A*-C). A levels and GCSE's in science subjects are essential. Equivalent qualifications, such as a BTEC National Certificate/Diploma in science subjects or an International Baccalaureate, may be acceptable. Entry requirements vary and it is advisable to check with individual institutions for details. Those without the usual academic qualifications may be able to take an Access course. The Diploma in engineering may be relevant.

Applicants must be within accepted height and weight specifications and be mentally stable. Potential astronauts are given rigorous medical and physical tests. Applicants must have a fluent command of English and knowledge of Russian is also an advantage.

Recent graduates can gain experience of ESA through its one-year Young Graduate Trainee Programme, which prepares candidates for future employment in the space industry. These are paid positions and full details are available on the ESA website.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Space missions are a high-risk activity and are extremely expensive. Before undertaking any mission, astronauts have to undertake several years of intensive training.

The ESA training programme for International Space Station missions takes place partly at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany, with support from other sites around the world.

It is made up of three stages:

  • Basic training gives trainee astronauts essential knowledge of space technology and science, medical skills and additional skills related to their future work tasks. These additional skills include underwater diving (as a basis for space walk training), robotics, rendezvous and docking, the Russian language, and human behaviour and performance training.
  • Advanced training gives astronauts the knowledge and skills relevant to the operation of the Space Station, transport vehicles and communication with the ground staff.
  • 'Increment-specific' training gives an international crew assigned to a mission the knowledge and skills required to carry out the required tasks. This stage includes onboard training and the crew is trained together as much as possible.

It takes about three and a half years to complete all stages of training.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Astronauts need:

  • Strong scientific and technical skills.
  • To be physically and mentally fit and healthy.
  • The ability to withstand the effects on the body of being in space.
  • Good reasoning skills and the ability to find solutions to problems.
  • To be able to get on with people and work well in a team.
  • Concentration.
  • Spatial awareness.
  • Good communication skills.
  • Good practical skills.
  • To be flexible and able to adapt to many tasks and situations.
  • To be able to cope with being away from home for months at a time.
  • To be aware of the risks involved in space flight.

Your Long Term Prospects

After a career in space flight, astronauts may enter senior management positions within space agencies or related organisations.

Get Further Information

European Space Agency (ESA)
Website: www.esa.int

The Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and
Manufacturing Technologies (SEMTA), 14 Upton Road, Watford WD18 0JT
Tel: 01923 238441
Website: www.semta.org.uk

Space Careers
Website: www.space-careers.com

Space Jobs in Europe and North America
Website: www.rocketcrew.space/space-jobs/

UK Space Agency, UKspace,
Electron Building, Fermi Avenue,
Harwell, Oxford, Didcot,
Oxfordshire OX11 0QR
Website: www.ukspace.org

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