About Astronaut

Remember the 1998 Bruce Willis starrer cult movie Armageddon? Or Christopher Nolan’s2014 blockbuster – Interstellar? Our curiosity in the lives of astronauts has been time and again lived and explored in movies like Contact (1997), Mission to Mars (2000), Solaris (2002) and Gravity (2013).

The terms astronaut and cosmonaut essentially mean the same – trained individuals operating a spacecraft; the former used by Americans and the latter by Russians, although worldwide astronaut is the more commonly used term.

Becoming an astronaut requires perseverance. The interest in this career is heightened by the opportunity to explore the unchartered territories of the universe. The rush of viewing the earth from outside space, to walk through the craters of the moon and to explore life on another faraway planet beats all fear. And yet, it is not an easy career to pursue. For a qualified person with several years of learning and training, the chances of becoming an astronaut in NASA is less than 0.17% and in the European Space Station (ESA) is between 0.6% and 4%. Clay Anderson, a retired NASA astronaut had applied 15 times before he was finally accepted as an astronaut.

To be an astronaut of a space agency, you must be the citizen of the country the agency belongs to. So, to work in NASA, you must be an American citizen. Similar is the case with ESA and the others.

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Having or acquiring a citizenship is more of a technicality. The real first step towards becoming an Astronaut is choosing Science (Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics) as your main area of study in grade 11 and 12. If you study the profiles of NASA's astronauts, they either have a military or an engineering background although qualified professionals from medicine, chemistry, biology and veterinary science backgrounds are also encouraged. Taking up STEM courses after completion of the 12th grade is the best course possible for pursuing this career. A majority of the astronauts come from the fields of aerospace, chemical, mechanical and computer engineering as well as from mathematics (pure & applied) background.!

For an astronaut, there is no better place to be than NASA. Considering the United States has the most active space system in the world, it naturally also has the best institutes for training their future astronauts. There are two main types of astronaut applicants in the US- military and civilian. Military applicants apply through their branch whereas civilians can apply to NASA directly.

The United States Naval Academy, United States Air Force Academy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have produced the most number of astronauts for USA – 52, 36 and 34 respectively. These institutes offer Bachelors and combined degree programs in space studies, admission to which is based on the TOEFLand SAT scores (for international students.)

Russia, with its second-best space system in the world also has some of the best institutes for astronauts. Their full-time Master’s programmes offer courses in Spacecraft Engineering, High Energy Physics and Cosmology, and Planetary Science.

Like in the countries with an active space agency, most astronauts from India have had a defence background. Both Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra, the two famous astronauts from India belonged to the Indian Air Force. Hence, pursuing a career in Defence is one way to become an astronaut in India.

The other way is through academics. After completing anundergraduatecourse in the Science or Engineering stream, students must look to pursue a masters in Astrophysics, Geophysics or Metaphysics. A PhD in any of these courses will be an added advantage. Admission to these courses is through highly competitive entrance exams.

Besides the engineering colleges, there are some specialized institutes in India that are highly recommended for pursuing a career as an Astronaut. Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala is one such government aided study and research institute for space sciences. It offers BTech, MTech and PhD degrees as well as a 5-year Dual Degree (BTech + MTech/M.S) in Engineering Physics. For the 156 seats in the BTech programme, admission to this institute is based on the JEE mains. The GATE score and other projects are taken into consideration for the MTech and PhD courses. Similar undergraduate courses, postgraduate and doctoral programmes are offered at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and some of the IITs.

Career Prospects

In the US, after completing the requisite education, NASA recruits scientists, astronauts etc. through an entrance exam. There is a stringent physical fitness requirement as well - 20/20 vision (with corrective lenses), blood pressurel ess than 140/90 in sitting position and height between 62 and 75 inches. Those who pass the exam undergo two years of training (classroom learning on spaceflights and space stations, physical training and tests like swimming, scuba diving, military water survival and atmospheric pressure tests) as a potential astronaut. Despite the rigorous training, it can be years before astronauts are sent to space. In the interim time, astronauts work as back up and ‘CapCom’ in Mission Control. In the US, since all astronauts must mandatorily maintain flight proficiency on T-38 aircraft, they also spend time flying the requisite number of hours per month.

Astronauts begin a full-scale mission training (which can take up to a few years) when they are selected for one. Since the mission can last anywhere from six months to four years, the training includes simulations, onboard system orientation, meal preparation, trash management and equipment and camera usage.

NASA offers various other types of career opportunities to qualified individuals. There are many opportunities for space researchers, scientists and engineers. In India, qualified professionals can find employment in ISRO. Recruitment of scientists and engineers to ISRO is through the Joint Entrance Exam set by the IITs.

The education of a space scientist makes one employable in various industries. You could choose to work:

  • In space research labs - ground-based observatories and R&D centres
  • In military operations
  • In the manufacturing industry - spacecraft manufacturing firms, designing and manufacturing of telescopes and other scientific equipment
  • Technology industry – writing software for spacecraft software developing firms
  • In simulation centres
  • As space tourism operators
  • As an academic and research faculty in universities
  • In government/national observatories, science museums and planetariums.
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Jobs & Salary

There are typically two types of astronauts - pilot astronauts and mission specialist astronauts. Pilot astronauts guide the space shuttle in and out of the orbit safely, manoeuvre the spacecraft in orbit, guide the shuttle to dockings, monitor the controls during lift-off and fly the shuttle back to a runway landing.

Mission specialist astronauts operate the space shuttle's payloads and are responsible for a variety of activities including conducting science tasks and assisting the pilots with spacecraft operations. Mission specialist astronauts also operate the shuttle's robot arm to release and secure satellites. The famous 'spacewalks' to repair satellites is also their job.

In India, although ISRO is not currently sending astronauts into space, there are a variety of job opportunities for astronauts in various fields. Based on the skills and qualifications, you can get employed in:

Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO)
National Aeronautical Laboratories (NAL)
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)
Aerospace industry

Although NASA employs the most number of astronauts once every two years - around 20 space scientists, here are some of the other space centres of the world which recruit astronauts:

Russian Federal Space Agency
European Space Agency
Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency
Canadian Space Agency
China National Space Administration

In the US, the civilian astronaut salaries are based on the Federal Government's General Schedule pay scale for grades GS-11 to GS-14. As of now, a GS-11 grade astronaut gets paid $5,500 per month and a GS-14 grade astronaut can make up to $12,000 per month.The grades are determined based on experience and expertise. Military astronauts report to the Johnson Space Center and along with the pay get several benefits and leaves.

In India as well, astronauts are paid in accordance with the Fifth Pay Commission. Scientists and engineers at ISRO get paid between Rs. 45,000 and Rs. 80,000 per month depending on their qualification and experience. At a director level, the salary can go as high as Rs. 200,000 per month. The benefits are many and include health care and insurance, as well as maternity and paternity leaves.

Pros & Cons

By now you already know that becoming an astronaut is a 20-year process and yet it is worth every effort when you finally get to experience the outer space in person. Before you take the decision to pursue it, consider the pros and cons of this profession.

Pros
  • A highly respectable job with good pay and excellent benefits
  • You will get to work with the best minds in the world
  • Opportunity to work with the most advanced machinery
Cons
  • In space, low gravity plays havoc with the astronauts’ blood and bones. Long stayers in space often report health issues
  • Being in a spaceship too long can also impact the mental health of astronauts
  • It is a risky profession. Many astronauts have lost their lives on duty

Famous Personalities

Kalpana Chawla

An inspiration to all Indians, Kalpana Chawla was the first female American astronaut of Indian origin who got the opportunity to travel to space twice. She had a Bachelor’s degree from a University in Punjab and an MSc in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, Arlington. She joined NASA as a fellow researcher. In her first mission, Kalpana Chawla and five other astronauts were responsible for deploying a satellite named Spartan 201 and conducting experiments. She died in 2003 in a space shuttle disaster when re-entering the atmosphere.

Neil Armstrong

The most famous astronaut and idolized by kids who aspire to follow his path, Neil Armstrong was a Purdue University graduate anda member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics before he became an astronaut.He joined NASA to become a part of the Gemini program and was amongst the first astronauts to walk the moon.

Yuri Gagarin

The first man in space, Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet cosmonaut who was drafted into the Soviet Air Force and then to the Soviet Space Program because of his excellent flying record. He was later selected to be a part of a special group ‘Sochi Six’ from where he became the first cosmonaut in the outer space. He won several honours and awards on his return.

Timeline

1957 The Soviet Union launches ‘Sputnik,’ the first satellite into space

1961 Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space

1962 Valentina Nikolayeva Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space

1965 The spacecraft Mariner 4 transmits the first pictures of Mars

1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first men on the moon

1976 The American probe Viking 2 discovers water frost on Martian surface

1979 Voyagers 1 and 2 transmits the first images of Jupiter and her moons

1980 Voyager 1 reaches Saturn and begins transmitting images

1986 Voyager 2 begins transmitting images from Uranus

1989 Voyager 2 begins transmitting images from Neptune

1995 The Galileo probe begins transmitting data from Jupiter

1998 John Glenn becomes the oldest man in space

2003 The Space Shuttle Columbia breaks up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere killing all seven astronauts including Kalpana Chawla

2006 NASA’s spacecraft Stardust returns to Earth with the first-everdust collected from a comet

2009 NASA’s spacecraft Kepler is launched with the mission to search for planets outside our solar system in distant parts of the Milky Way

2012 First manmade probe launched in interstellar space

2015 Space grown Lettuce is eaten for the first time


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