How to Train to be an Astronaut

Becoming an astronaut takes a lot of work

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Astronauts aboard the International Space Station. They train for years to make missions like this. NASA

What does it take to become an astronaut? It's a question that's been asked since the start of the Space Age in the 1960s. In those days, pilots were considered the most well-trained professionals, so military fliers were first in line to go to space. More recently, people from a wide range of professional backgrounds — doctors, scientists, and even teachers — have trained to live and work in near-Earth orbit. Even so, those selected to go to space must meet high standards for physical condition and have the proper type of education and training. Whether they come from the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, or any other country with space interests, astronauts are required to be thoroughly prepared for the missions they undertake in a safe and professional manner.

Future missions to space may well require people from different space programs to work together for long periods of time. It's important that each training program emphasize similar skills, and select astronauts with the best skills and temperament for each job.

Physical and Psychological Requirements for Astronauts

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Exercise is a huge part of an astronaut's life, both on the ground in training, and in space. Astronauts are required to have good health and be in top physical shape. NASA

People who want to become astronauts must be in top physical condition. Each country's space program has health requirements for its space travelers. They usually assess a candidate's fitness to withstand some pretty tough conditions. For example, a good candidate must have the ability to endure the rigors of lift-off and to function in weightlessness. All astronauts, including pilots, commanders, mission specialists, science specialists, or payload managers, must be at least 147 centimeters tall, have good visual acuity, and normal blood pressure. Beyond that, there is no age limit. Most astronaut trainees are between the ages of 25 and 46, although older people have also flown to space later in their careers. 

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NASA continually tests ideas for new spacesuits that will keep astronauts safe on the Moon, in space, and on Mars. NASA

People who go to space are usually self-confident risk-takers, adept at stress management and multitasking. They also need to be able to work as part of a team for any given assignment. On Earth, astronauts are usually required to perform various public relations duties, such as speaking to the public, working with other professionals, and sometimes even testifying before government officials. So, astronauts who can relate well to many different kinds of people are seen as valuable team members.

Educating an Astronaut

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Astronaut candidates training in weightlessness aboard the KC-135 plane familiarly known as the "Vomit Comet.". NASA

Spacefarers from all countries are required to have college educations, along with professional experience in their fields as a prerequisite to joining a space agency. Pilots and commanders are still expected to have extensive flying experience whether in commercial or military flight. Some come from test-pilot backgrounds.

Often, astronauts have a background as scientists and many have high-level degrees, like Ph.Ds. Others have military training or space industry expertise. Regardless of their background, once an astronaut is accepted into a country's space program, he or she goes through rigorous training to actually live and work in space.

Scott Kelly in a selfie in the cupola of the ISS.
Astronaut Scott Kelly in the cupola section of the international Space Station. NASA

Most astronauts learn to fly aircraft (if they don't already know how). They also spend a lot of time working in "mockup" trainers, particularly if they're going to be working aboard the International Space Station. Astronauts flying aboard the Soyuz rockets and capsules train those mockups and learn to speak Russian. All astronaut candidates learn the rudiments of first aid and medical care, in case of emergencies and train to use specialized instruments for safe extravehicular activity.

It's not all trainers and mockups, however. Astronaut trainees spend a lot of time in the classroom, learning the systems they will work with, and the science behind the experiments they will conduct in space. Once astronauts are chosen for a specific mission, they do intensive work learning its intricacies and how to make it work (or fix it if something goes wrong). The servicing missions for the Hubble Space Telescope, the construction work on the International Space Station, and many other activities in space were all made possible through very thorough and intense preparation by each astronaut.

Physical Training for Space

Astronauts training in mockups underwater.
Astronauts training for missions to the International Space Station, using mockups in the Neutral Buoyancy tanks at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. NASA

The space environment is an unforgiving and unfriendly one. People have adapted to a "1G" gravitational pull here on Earth. Our bodies evolved to function in 1G. Space, however, is a microgravity regime, and so all the bodily functions that work well on Earth have to get used to being in a near-weightless environment. It's physically difficult for astronauts at first, but they do acclimate and learn to move properly. Their training takes this into account. Not only do they train in the Vomit Comet, an airliner that is used to fly them in parabolic arcs to gain experience in weightlessness, but there are also neutral buoyancy tanks that allow them to simulate working in space environments. In addition, astronauts practice land survival skills, in the event that their flights don't end with the smooth landings people are accustomed to seeing.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata training on VR.
Astronaut Koichi Wakata using virtual reality to learn a system called SAFER for his trip to the International Space Station during Expedition 38/39. NASA 

With the advent of virtual reality, NASA and other agencies have adopted immersive training using these systems. For example, astronauts can learn about the layout of the ISS and its equipment using VR headsets, and they can also simulate extravehicular activities. Some simulations take place in CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) systems display visual cues on video walls. The important thing is for astronauts to learn their new environments both visually and kinesthetically before they ever leave the planet.

Future Training for Space

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The NASA astronaut class of 2017 arrives for training. NASA

While most astronaut training occurs within agencies, there are specific companies and institutions that work with both military and civilian pilots and space travelers to get them ready for space. The advent of space tourism will open up other training opportunities for everyday people who want to go to space but aren't necessarily planning to make a career of it. In addition, the future of space exploration will see commercial operations in space, which will require those workers to be trained, too. Regardless of who goes and why, space travel will remain a very delicate, dangerous, and challenging activity for both astronauts and tourists alike. Training will always be necessary if long-term space exploration and habitation is to grow.

Fast Facts

  • Astronaut training is very rigorous and can take several years before a candidate is ready to fly.
  • Each astronaut learns a specialty during training.
  • Astronaut candidates must be in good shape physically, and be psychologically able to withstand the pressures of flight and the requirements for teamwork.

Sources

  • Dunbar, Brian. “Astronauts in Training.” NASA, NASA, www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/F_Astronauts_in_Training.html.
  • Esa. “Astronaut Training Requirements.” European Space Agency, www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Human_and_Robotic_Exploration/Astronauts/Astronaut_training_requirements.
  • “Faking It and Making It-Virtual Reality Helped EVA Reach Its 50-Year Milestone.” NASA, NASA, roundupreads.jsc.nasa.gov/pages.ashx/203/Faking it and making itvirtual reality helped EVA reach its 50year milestone.