An Astronaut is a person that has gone through rigorous training in order to command, pilot, or serve as a crew member in a spacecraft. They work for human spaceflight programs which are usually run by governments, either by military or civilian space agencies; although there are some private companies that schedule and organize commercial space flights.
Training to become an Astronaut is quite difficult and demanding. These professionals never stop training due to the fact that every time they have to go on a new mission, Astronauts must undergo a series of physical examinations to test their physical condition and endurance, as both are important factors in this specific context.
The work of an Astronaut depends on their position within the crew. They might be in charge of piloting or commanding the aircraft, for which they must possess the necessary training, skills, and knowledge. Other positions within a space crew involve payload specialists, who are in charge of handling and taking care of the cargo, and other mission specialists, such as Scientists and Engineers, qualified to conduct special experiments requiring zero gravity or to launch satellites.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of common tasks Astronauts are required to complete.
- Briefing with mission headquarters about upcoming assignments:
- Receiving instructions regarding mission;
- checking the cargo and materials they will be taking to space;
- coordinating and monitoring all the operational activities inside the spacecraft; and
- consolidating a team for the mission and assigning tasks.
- Commanding and piloting spacecrafts:
- Following liftoff procedures;
- operating controls and flying in space;
- following flight patterns and routes;
- making sure that all operations and systems are running smoothly during the journey;
- maneuvering the spacecraft into the designated coordinates to dock into the international space station or satellites; and
- preparing for atmosphere re-entry following the applicable procedures.
- Communicating constantly with ground and mission control towers:
- Requesting takeoff and landing clearances and instructions;
- reporting location and status of the spacecraft; and
- communicating with the international space station to coordinate docking.
- Responding to and reporting emergencies:
- Reporting equipment malfunction;
- notifying mission control of emergencies, problems, and hazards (e.g. fuel leaking, system malfunctions, or medical emergencies); and
- following the established procedures during the aforementioned situations.
- Keeping the spacecraft’s log updated with all eventualities.
- Conducting tests and experiments in zero-gravity.
- Testing the behavior of materials and substances in zero-gravity;
- analyzing how the lack of gravity affects the human body; and
- testing how long life can survive in a zero-gravity environment.
- Providing regular maintenance and repairs to satellites and to the International Space Station:
- Transporting special scientific equipment and tools to orbit in order to conduct repairs and maintenance;
- installing and testing new hardware and systems in satellites and in the International Space Station;
- fixing or replacing malfunctioning systems;
- keeping a log of all activities and of the status of the hardware;
- cleaning and repairing all required equipment;
- evaluating the system’s conditions in order to avoid bacterial growth; and
- bringing damaged materials and systems back to Earth for disposal.
- Staying up-to-date with scientific research and discoveries.
- Briefing with mission control about details of flights and assignments.
- Following instructions from mission control before, during, and after liftoff, as well as for orbital re-entry.
- Monitoring systems during liftoff and orbital flight.
- Maneuvering spacecraft into orbit and docking position with the International Space Station.
- Conducting regular maintenance and repairs in the International Space Station and other satellites.
- Conducting scientific experiments in zero gravity.
- Engaging in regular exercise during their stay in space to avoid muscular mass loss and training to endure the harsh conditions of liftoff and zero-gravity.
- Staying up-to-date with scientific research and discoveries.
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- Excellent interpersonal and communication skills.
- Good team-working and leadership skills:
- Being able to work as part of a team with the crew;
- coordinating and assigning tasks; and
- working alongside a group of Scientists, Pilots, and Engineers.
- Outstanding stress-management and decision-making skills:
- Assessing and handling emergency situations in a timely manner;
- making quick and effective decisions; and
- remaining calm and focused in moments of high stress.
- Excellent physical condition and stamina:
- Enduring the harsh conditions of liftoff, life in zero-gravity, and orbital re-entry;
- possessing excellent vision and hearing;
- being an excellent swimmer, as the training to adapt to zero-gravity is done in swimming pools;
- being able to be in confined spaces for long periods of time; and
- not suffering from any cardiac or other medical conditions.
- Excellent mathematical, physics, and engineering skills:
- Being able to calculate and re-design flight routes and fuel consumption plans; and
- being able to perform regular maintenance on the International Space Station, satellites, and emergency repairs in spacecrafts and shuttles.
- Good understanding of Mechanical and Flight Engineering:
- Being capable of running system inspections;
- being able to fix minor problems when needed; and
- understanding basic and complex concepts of airplane systems.
- Outstanding knowledge of Experimental Science, Mathematics, and the scientific method.
- Strong computer and numerical skills:
- Handling specialized software to collect, sort, and interpret data;
- designing and developing computer models and simulations; and
- using special equipment to collect and record data.
- High levels of self-confidence, commitment, and discipline.
Becoming an Astronaut can be a very hard and demanding process. American Astronauts are recruited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); the competition is quite fierce and there are only a handful of vacancies available each year. The work of an Astronaut is extremely taxing, therefore, NASA only hires the best candidates.
NASA only accepts American citizens or legal residents to enroll in the selection process, although preference is given to citizens. Applicants must be proficient in in a second language, ideally, Russian, as both, the American and Russian governments work closely together. They must possess a bachelor’s degree from a recognized university in Engineering, Science, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, or Computer Science. Possessing a master’s degree or a doctorate in any of these fields can be a great asset during the selection process.
Aside from formal education, American Astronauts are expected to possess at least 3 years of professional experience in their respective fields of expertise and at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time on a jet aircraft. After going through a meticulous and exhausting selection process, selected aspirants need to join a 2-year training program.
Given the harsh conditions of the work environment, applicants must meet all medical requirements and enjoy an overall excellent health. NASA establishes some minimum physical requirements for aspirants, which include being between 5'2" and 6'3" (157 to 190.5 cm). They must also have excellent eyesight, with 20/20 (6/6) or better in each eye without correction, as well as exceptional unaided hearing. Furthermore, they must not suffer from any blood pressure condition, as it shouldn’t be any higher than 140/90 mmHg in sitting position. Additionally, candidates to become Astronauts must go through a rigorous security clearance, with an extensive background check and an interview.