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Education Advice for Aspiring Astronauts March 26, 2012

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.

I’ve had some questions from school visits and public lectures recently about the best educational strategy to follow for aspiring astronauts. Here’s my brief advice:

  • As you consider college and your future career, remember that NASA is looking for aspirants who have a science or engineering degree. You must earn a 4-year undergraduate degree in science or engineering, and then obtain at least three years of work experience. See http://astronauts.nasa.gov/.
  • There is no “best” subject or career discipline to study. Choose anything from Astronomy to Zoology — as long as you love the subject! NASA has hired astronauts from all science disciplines and engineering backgrounds, and my classmates included physicists, materials scientists, flight test engineers, aerospace engineers, planetary scientists, and so on. My colleagues were veterinarians, medical doctors, military test pilots, and laser physicists. The important thing is to love your discipline, so you will excel, so you will be an expert, so NASA will be eager to have your expertise!
  • Remember that the commercial spaceflight firms may soon hire astronauts to pilot their spaceplanes or capsules, to be adventure tour guides, in-flight cabin crewmembers, and eventually, industrial facility or space hotel operators. Most of the same educational requirements apply.
  • Because NASA received over 6300 applications this last winter for its 2013 class (probably 10 or fewer candidates will be chosen), to be competitive, an applicant will usually need a Master’s degree or even a PhD or M.D. That extra education signals the ability to conduct independent research or to master the latest techniques in the field (aerospace engineering, for example). My advice is to apply when you are eligible, but keep applying as you work toward that advanced degree–which also counts for work experience.
  • If you don’t make it at first to the astronaut ranks, your choice of career will be even more important, because your profession will have to engage and support you for a lifetime. Choose something you love to do — and make sure someone will pay you for doing it!

More to come in a later post about how the actual selection process goes at NASA.

Aim high!


(Astronaut selection and training is the topic of one of the earliest speeches I gave as an astronaut…would love to tell your group about the topic.)

Ready for re-entry aboard Atlantis, on STS-98, Feb. 2001. (NASA)



1. Mary McWhorter Albright - March 26, 2012

Good tips. I am certain this advise will be helpful for many children and future astronauts. I plan on passing the information on to the Aeronautics and pre-International Baccalaureate teachers at my son’s school.

2. Alan Gould - March 27, 2012

Even before you got out of pilot training, you were inspiring others to look into the night sky. One night on a camping trip in Oklahoma, you showed a classmate the Andromeda galaxy which was visible to the naked eye – that was a very dark sky. I’ve never forgotten that and kept looking for it for nearly 30 years.

Your intelligence, competence and skills as a pilot were evident. But what amazed me even more was your quiet humbleness and humanity. You were a “fighter pilot” with the soul of a Buddhist monk.

In other words, the epitome of an astronaut.

Thanks Tom.

3. skywalking1 - March 27, 2012

Hi Al — Thanks for the kind words. One of the best things about NASA flying was cruising over the Gulf of Mexico at FL390 under a dark night sky, flooded with stars. As on the shuttle or ISS, one had to turn the cockpit lights down low or use red light to acclimatize one’s vision. But it was truly worth it.

Just last night I was out viewing Venus, Jupiter, and the crescent Moon through binoculars. Keep looking up!

4. ray gabe (@rayagabe) - March 29, 2012

Great advice which is equally true in any profession – while nothing is easy, loving your work (and doing it well) makes all the difference in your life. I will certainly pass this real-life experience along to some young people I know. Very simply, aim HIGH! Take it from someone who’s actually been there.

6300 NASA “aspirants” may seem like a lot, but I would expect 63k!

To be sure, the job of an astronaut is not only extremely demanding (in every way), but higher in risk than most professions. Other than simple lack of confidence, I suspect the greater fear is of “failing” rather than suffering the rare, unfortunate accident that keeps otherwise qualified candidates from realizing their ultimate potential.
While space flight is certainly not for everyone, driving a car is sadly among one of the most dangerous things we all do every day.

While so very few are truly qualified and even fewer chosen, the reward is so profound and the contribution to mankind is tremendous.
I believe we must encourage more young people to prepare themselves to at least meet the astronaut requirements and to apply.

Even as the docking of ATV-3 to the Zvezda service module of “Station” this evening may appear routine, EVERY space mission (like anything else) carries some risk and requires an astounding amount of technology and great human spirit to successfully achieve.

Many thanks to Tom for his continuous efforts not only on ISS, but here on planet Earth!

Note minor typo: “may soon hire astronauts to hire their spaceplanes” should read “may soon hire astronauts to pilot their spaceplanes” (I assume).

BTW, the Venus/Jupiter conjunction is quite a sight! 🙂

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