Dream Job: NASA Astronaut

Astronaut Robert L. Curbeam, Jr.
NASA/Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

With the advent of manned space exploration, astronaut became the enduring dream job of kids aged one to 100. (Just watch how Stephen Colbert behaves any time one is a guest on his show.)

Every two years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) solicits applications for its astronaut program. That hasn’t changed, despite the retirement of the shuttle program (and its unfortunate impact on a lot of other space jobs.)

Appropriate to its inception in the Cold War, NASA’s astronaut program originally targeted the best and brightest pilots in the US military, among them naval aviator Scott Carpenter and fellow Marine John Glenn. Astronauts have since been drawn from more diverse civilian communities like engineers, scientists, and educators, but the military remains an important source of candidates. Five astronauts each in the classes of 2009 and 2004 were active service members, among nearly 300 in NASA’s history.

Current astronaut candidates in the military retain their rank and service obligations while assigned to the Lyndon Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for a five-year tour.

NASA Requirements

Although post-baccalaureate degrees are preferred, NASA wants astronauts with at least a bachelor’s degree -- specifically one focused on engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.

They also don’t want fresh-faced graduates: Prospective astronauts must have “at least three years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience” (Astronaut Selection and Training, PDF) although a master's degree can replace one year, and a doctoral three years, of that requirement.

Shuttle pilots and commanders (probably not a top priority now that we’ll be hailing Russian space-cabs) also need 1,000 hours of experience as a pilot-in-command.

Also, any candidate – military or civilian – must pass a NASA space physical and be at least 58 inches tall, but no taller than 6’ 4. Pilots can only range between 5’ 2 and 6’ 3. (It’s always that extra inch that kills you.)

Military Requirements

In general, military astronaut candidates are US citizens and commissioned officers with at least five years of active duty service. In addition to NASA’s degree requirements, Army and Marine Corps regulations also list degrees that aren’t acceptable, including medical technology, psychology (unless clinical, physiological, or experimental), nursing, exercise physiology, social sciences, and aviation.

All NASA hopefuls apply through Federal recruiting hub USAJobs, but military candidates also forward the application through their chain of command. Even though NASA sees the application right away, the services each have a say in the process through a “selection board” – the same kind of headquarters committee that decides promotions. (The Marine Corps, however, dropped the selection board in April 2012, figuring NASA knew best how to pick an astronaut.)

Oh, and that part about commissioned officers? Apparently, there’s one glaring exception: the Air Force will accept applications from officers or enlisted.

...Wait, What?

Yes, an Air Force Public Affairs official is on record in a 2011 article saying enlisted personnel can apply. Unfortunately, the juicier details are locked away on a secure website available only to Air Force personnel.

Like many, I was inclined to believe all military astronauts are commissioned, officers. The data confirm this suspicion: Not even one enlisted astronaut – current, former, or deceased – is named in NASA’s 2005 Astronaut Fact Book (PDF) or on their current roster.

So, what’s the deal? Honestly, without access to the Air Force's secure websites, I just don’t know. But if any branch were to offer slots to enlisted folks, the Air Force fits the bill as the biggest supporter of space operations.

An ambitious airman in a field like Space Systems Operations, with a load of experience and off-duty education, could make a strong case for becoming the first enlisted astronaut.

From my experience as a career planner in the Marines, I can only say that if there’s something in writing that says you’re eligible for a program, it’s worth it to apply. But don’t apply with any sense of entitlement.

Career Outlook

After all, any would-be astronaut faces long odds: “a .7 percent chance of being selected,” according to Army Colonel Tim Creamer, quoted in 2008 by Army.mil. In the same article, retired Colonel Jeff Williams admitted to waiting through ten years and multiple rejections before making it to NASA, adding, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – but . . . be consistent.”

That’s sage advice for any career-minded troop, especially for an assignment where long-range planning –- and a recently shaky future -– can create a “hurry up and wait” atmosphere too powerful even for the saltiest infantryman.

It’s not that astronauts will have nothing to do: Despite the retirement of the last US space shuttle in 2012, NASA will still send its people up by purchasing seats on Russian craft, until the partnership with the infant commercial space industry begins to pay off.

And NASA still advertises astronaut positions. Astronaut selection boards in each of the service branches wrapped up in 2012 with the names of future astronauts that can expect to report to NASA by mid- to late-2013.

The point is just this: getting into the astronaut program through the military is a worthy goal, but it requires a lot of patience, foresight, and dedication. And with no guarantees, it’s best if you already have a flexible career plan so that those rejection letters won’t ruin your life.