Becoming an astronaut is neither simple nor straightforward; there are no schools for astronauts or university courses. So how do you become an astronaut and what qualifications and qualities do you need?
Space agencies are looking for the best people possible. Training an astronaut is a considerable investment for any agency; training is lengthy and expensive, and the support needed both before and during a space mission is costly.
It takes years to organise a space mission and altogether hundreds of people are involved in preparing the astronauts and the spacecraft. Astronauts are pivotal to the success of a mission but flight opportunities are limited, so space agencies want to be sure that the astronaut selected will make the best possible use of the precious time they will spend in space.
What qualities do you need?
Astronauts apply knowledge and skills to tasks for which they are trained
Astronauts need to be able to apply their considerable knowledge and skills to the tasks for which they have been trained; be able to bear tremendous responsibility while in orbit; and be determined to succeed. This is what makes them special.
A high level of education in scientific or technical disciplines, coupled with an outstanding professional background in research, application or education fields possibly supported by the use of computer systems and applications, is essential. Previous experience with aircraft operations is a bonus, particularly if it involved responsible tasks such as being a test pilot or flight engineer. The more skills and experience an applicant has the better, as this will increase their ability to undertake a variety of tasks.
Andre Kuipers in the Soyuz simulator at Star City
Equally essential is excellent physical condition. Astronauts have to undergo intensive periods of training and may participate in spaceflights that last for months. During this time their body will be subject to a great deal of stress and good health and physical endurance are essential.
It is a challenge to live in a confined space for long periods with other people. Among the psychological qualities required are the ability to get on well with other members of the crew, and an affinity for teamwork and adaptability, as the space crew must work well together. Would-be astronauts also need self-control and an equable temperament to cope with stress and any emergency that may arise.
On the operational side, an ability to adapt quickly to changing situations and mature judgement will be of great help in performing tasks and optimising on-orbit routines and procedures.
Lastly, astronauts must be willing to travel long distances, both on Earth and in space, and to spend long periods away from home as astronaut training takes place in a number of countries and they may participate in long-duration missions.