How To Be An Astronaut
Tim Peake's space selfie during his spacewalk. Credit: ESA

How To Be An Astronaut

02/08/2017Written by Josh Barker

We are always asked, 'How do I become an astronaut?' Here's some advice to any budding space-farers out there.

Book online now and upgrade to a free annual pass

mascot Telescope Right
STS-28 crew members leave the Kennedy Space Centre en route to the launch pad. Credit: NASA

One of the most popular questions we get asked here at the National Space Centre is ‘how can I be an astronaut?’. This career choice can be one of the hardest to achieve. So, the team here at the National Space Centre recently took over the Butlin’s blog to share our advice, and we thought we’d share them here on the Space Centre blog as well!

Just like the guests arriving at Butlin’s, we get a lot of inquisitive visitors at the National Space Centre in Leicester. When they see the rockets and space suits, they’re inspired to go on their own space adventure!

Here are some of the things you can do to improve your chances of being selected to leave Earth behind and go on a great space adventure.

STS-34 crew poses on the flight deck of the Johnson Space Centre's crew compartment trainer. Credit: NASA

STS-34 crew poses on the flight deck of the Johnson Space Centre’s crew compartment trainer. Credit: NASA

A quick history of the astronaut

A quick history of the astronaut
Neil Armstrong training on the altitude control training device, in preparation for his famed Lunar landing. Credit: NASA
A quick history of the astronaut
Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe on the KC-135 for zero-G training. Credit: NASA

In the past, most astronauts either had to be military test pilots or scientists, with the pilot route being the most common entry point. This was originally because early spaceflight was closely linked to Air Force research activities. Test pilots were used to the difficult and stressful conditions that early astronauts experienced.

Test pilots were also often trained in various engineering backgrounds. This gave them the skills considered favourable for the job. Most of the Apollo astronauts that went to the Moon came from this background. During the Apollo missions, they had to be taught how to do all the science experiments as many of them didn’t have a science background.

Since the first astronauts, the requirements have now broadened. In the past, we have seen Teachers (Christa McAuliffe), Helicopter Pilots (Tim Peake) and Chocolatiers (Helen Sharman) become astronauts; and while astronauts can come from all sorts of backgrounds, all of them are required to hold some sort of science or engineering-based degree. Helen Sharman held a PhD in chemistry when she flew into space.

This is the best piece of advice we can give to any wannabe astronaut; find an aspect of science, technology or engineering that you really enjoy. It can be biology or computer science, but a technical degree gives you a great foundation to build on when it comes to the space industry.

Choose your pre-astronaut job wisely and find a hobby

Choose your pre-astronaut job wisely and find a hobby
European Astronaut Tim Peake during neutral buoyancy training. Credit: NASA
Choose your pre-astronaut job wisely and find a hobby
STS-114 astronauts during underwater training. Credit: NASA

The second thing we always point out, and something you may have noticed from the previous paragraph, is that astronauts have almost always done another job before becoming an astronaut. The average age of people selected to be astronauts is 34 years old – people don’t go straight into space after finishing school.

So, remember to be patient! This is why it’s good to find something you really enjoy and do that for a while before considering a career change.

Another defining feature of astronauts is that they tend to have a lot of hobbies. Many astronauts learn to scuba dive or fly planes as a hobby, even if it’s not part of their job. Tim Peake was an avid member of the scouts when he was younger.

These sorts of skills can be helpful when training to be an astronaut. Skills like scuba diving are used during the astronaut training program to get people ready to go into space.

That said, these activities are not necessary. In fact a lot of them are included as part of the astronaut training programme anyway.

What’s involved in astronaut training…

What’s involved in astronaut training…
Astronaut Andrew Feustel, STS-125 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit. Credit: NASA

If you’re lucky enough to be selected as an astronaut, the training will take up most of your time. Astronauts must spend at least three years in training before they go into space.

Their training covers everything from flying the spaceship, to putting on and using their spacesuit, and even learning all the experiments they have to do while in space. It can be a long and difficult process.

When Tim visited the National Space Centre he said the hardest thing he had to do was to learn to speak Russian and remember everything that he was told.

The reason why it’s so difficult to become an astronaut is because the space agencies need people who can handle all of these difficult tasks in potentially stressful environments.

The team behind the astronaut

The team behind the astronaut
STS-98 Flight Control Team photo. Credit: NASA

Not many people manage to become astronauts. In fact, over the entire history of pace exploration, just over 500 people have officially become astronauts out of the hundreds of thousands that have applied. This is a very small number.

However, the list of people that have helped get these astronauts into space has hundreds of thousands of names on it. While many people won’t get into space themselves, it takes huge teams to get the astronauts there.

You need teams of people to train the astronauts, to help them learn what to do, and how to use equipment. You have chefs that cook the astronaut’s food, you have scientists who design their experiments, you have people who make their space suits… and the list goes on!

Whenever people are in space, there is a large team in mission control who constantly supervise the mission, talking to the astronauts and monitoring all the information being sent back from the spacecraft.

Try your best - it’s all you can do!

So, the final thing we always say to anyone who wants to be an astronaut is to try your best and see what happens! Hopefully, if everything goes well, you may just get the opportunity to go into space.

However, if you don’t, perhaps all the work that goes into preparing to be an astronaut will help you work in the space industry in another way. Maybe you could design spaceships or analyse the results from space experiments, and just possibly you could be the flight director and get to press the button that actually launches the rocket!

European Space Agencys astronaut class of 2009. Credit: ESA

European Space Agency astronaut class of 2009. Credit: ESA

Good luck!

As Butlin’s Science Zone partners, you’ll find the National Space Centre at Butlin’s Bognor Regis, Minehead and Skegness during all school holiday breaks throughout 2017. You and your family can take part in the Great Rocket Challenge and have a go at designing and launching your very own rocket.


About the Author: Josh Barker works on the Education and Space Communication Teams at the National Space Centre. He has loved space all his life and enjoys nothing more than helping people explore his favourite topic. He can often be spotted stargazing, building Lego Mars rovers and blowing things up to show people how rocket engines work!