Career Development

What Does an Astronaut Do?

Find out what an Astronaut does, how to get this job, salary information, and what it takes to succeed as an Astronaut.

Embarking on a journey beyond the confines of Earth, astronauts serve as explorers of the cosmos, tasked with conducting research and experiments that delve into the unknowns of space. Their role encompasses a broad spectrum of responsibilities, from operating spacecraft and satellites to studying celestial phenomena and collecting data that could unlock new insights into our universe. Through their missions, astronauts contribute to the expansion of human knowledge, aiding in the development of technologies and scientific understanding that benefit life on Earth. Their work not only pushes the boundaries of human achievement but also fosters international collaboration, as space exploration is a collective endeavor that transcends geographical and cultural barriers.

Astronaut Job Duties

  • Operate and maintain spacecraft systems during missions, including navigation, propulsion, and life support systems.
  • Perform scientific experiments in space to study the effects of microgravity on biology, physics, and other fields.
  • Engage in extravehicular activities (EVAs), also known as spacewalks, for repairs, scientific research, or satellite deployment.
  • Train extensively in simulators on Earth to prepare for various aspects of missions, including emergency procedures and equipment operation.
  • Collaborate with international partners on the International Space Station (ISS) or other joint missions, requiring cross-cultural and language skills.
  • Capture and document mission activities and observations using onboard cameras and journals for educational and research purposes.
  • Participate in post-mission debriefings and data analysis to provide insights for future missions and scientific discoveries.
  • Serve as a liaison to the public and educational organizations by sharing experiences and promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education through public speaking engagements and media interviews.

Astronaut Salary & Outlook

Astronaut salaries are influenced by their experience, mission duration, and role (commander, pilot, specialist). Tenure at the space agency and prior military service can also impact earnings. Additionally, involvement in high-profile missions or extra-vehicular activities (spacewalks) may affect compensation.

  • Median Annual Salary: $69,825 ($33.57/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $126,000 ($60.58/hour)

The employment of astronauts is expected to grow slower than average over the next decade.

This is due to the high costs and limited number of space missions, alongside advancements in robotics and AI reducing the need for human presence in space. Additionally, the rigorous selection process and extensive training for astronauts contribute to the slower employment growth.

Astronaut Job Requirements

Education: Astronaut candidates often possess advanced degrees in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science, or mathematics. Majors in aerospace or mechanical engineering, astrophysics, biology, chemistry, or geology are common, reflecting the multidisciplinary nature of space exploration. Coursework in physics and mathematics is essential, providing a solid foundation for understanding space environments and spacecraft operations. Additionally, knowledge in computer programming and digital technologies is increasingly important in this field, aligning with modern space mission requirements.

Experience: Astronaut candidates often come from diverse backgrounds, with a mix of experience levels ranging from none to extensive. Key areas of experience include aviation, engineering, science, and military service. On-the-job training is crucial, encompassing simulations, survival training, and learning spacecraft systems. Candidates also undergo rigorous physical training and participate in team-building exercises. Specialized training programs are tailored to mission-specific tasks, including spacewalks, robotics, and research. Adaptability, teamwork, and a continuous learning mindset are essential traits for success in this role.

Certifications & Licenses: No specific certifications or licenses are typically required for the job of an astronaut.

Astronaut Skills

Orbital Mechanics: Astronauts use physics principles to forecast spacecraft and celestial body movements, facilitating precise maneuvers during missions. Their expertise is critical for executing complex docking procedures with space stations and navigating the complexities of space travel.

Spacecraft Navigation: Calculating trajectories and maneuvers with precision ensures the spacecraft’s path meets mission objectives. Astronauts employ advanced mathematical models and real-time data analysis, requiring a deep understanding of orbital mechanics and the ability to adjust to space’s dynamic environment.

Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Operations: Performing complex tasks in space’s vacuum, tethered only by a lifeline to their spacecraft, astronauts need precision, calm, and thorough preparation for any contingency. Rigorous training in simulated zero-gravity environments on Earth is necessary to ensure safety and success during spacewalks.

Space Environment Adaptation: Astronauts adapt to microgravity, confined spaces, and the psychological demands of long-duration missions. They maintain physical health through specialized exercise routines, manage mental well-being, and effectively perform tasks under these conditions.

Interdisciplinary Science Research: Conducting experiments and solving problems in space, astronauts integrate principles from biology, physics, and geology. They adapt their research methodologies to space’s unpredictable conditions, ensuring valuable data collection across scientific fields.

Robotics Operation: Controlling and manipulating robotic arms and tools for tasks such as repairs on the International Space Station or collecting samples on other planetary bodies requires precise coordination and a deep understanding of the systems’ capabilities and limitations.

Astronaut Work Environment

Astronauts operate in an unparalleled work environment, where the physical setting extends beyond Earth’s atmosphere into space. Their workspace, often aboard spacecraft like the International Space Station (ISS), is meticulously organized and compact, designed to maximize efficiency in zero gravity. Tools and equipment are specialized for various tasks, from scientific experiments to maintenance and repairs, requiring rigorous training to master.

Work hours in space are structured yet adaptable, balancing mission duties with exercise and rest to maintain physical and mental health. The dress code varies from spacesuits for extravehicular activities to more casual wear within the spacecraft. The culture is deeply collaborative, with a team of astronauts from diverse backgrounds working closely together, relying on each other for safety and success.

Health and safety are paramount, with protocols in place to manage the unique risks of space travel. The pace of work is steady, driven by mission timelines and the need for meticulous attention to detail. Despite the high demands, the opportunity for professional development is significant, offering unparalleled experiences and learning opportunities. Technology plays a central role, from navigation to communication, requiring astronauts to be proficient with cutting-edge systems. The work-life balance is unique, with long periods away from Earth and limited communication with loved ones, highlighting the importance of psychological resilience.

Advancement Prospects

Astronaut career paths are highly specialized, beginning with rigorous selection processes. Advancement often involves multiple missions, with roles evolving from mission specialists to commanders, overseeing spacecraft and crew. Achieving this requires exceptional performance in initial missions, showcasing leadership, problem-solving skills, and adaptability in space.

Post-mission, astronauts may transition to senior roles within space agencies, such as training new astronauts, mission planning, or leading space exploration programs. These positions leverage their in-depth experience and knowledge of space missions.

Some astronauts pivot to roles in academia or industry, focusing on research, aerospace technology development, or public engagement, sharing their experiences and promoting space exploration. This trajectory is facilitated by their unique insights and firsthand experience in space missions.


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