An astronaut is a person trained to pilot a spacecraft, travel in a spacecraft or work in space.
Over time, NASA missions evolved and so, too, did the qualifications for becoming an astronaut. By 1964, emphasis had shifted away from flight experience and toward superior academic achievement. The first scientist-astronauts joined the program in 1965 to deepen knowledge of geology, astronomy, physics and biochemistry. This new breed of astronaut, however, was expected to endure the same rigors of training and to become proficient in spacecraft operations.
Today, NASA selects two kinds of astronauts for space flights — pilot astronauts and mission specialist astronauts. Pilot astronauts command and pilot shuttles and could command, in the near future, vessels that travel back to the moon or Mars. Mission specialist astronauts work with pilots to maintain spacecraft and equipment, conduct experiments and launch satellites. Mission specialists may be engineers, scientists or physicians. NASA has also introduced mission specialist educator astronauts. Educator astronauts go through the same training as any other astronaut and, by traveling into space, inspire students to join the U.S. space program or to consider careers in math, science, engineering and technology.
There are two kinds of astronauts that fall outside NASA's standard recruitment procedures. International astronauts are those individuals from international space agencies who have trained at Johnson Space Center and serve as mission specialists. International astronauts come from four agencies that have an agreement with NASA: the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Payload specialists are scientists who work for the owner of the payload (usually a private company or university) and carry out experiments involving the payload. As such, they are not NASA employees, but NASA must approve their appointment.
Both civilian and military personnel can apply to become what NASA calls astronaut candidates. All astronaut candidates must be U.S. citizens and must have bachelor's degrees from accredited institutions in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics. All candidates must also be able to pass the NASA long-duration space flight physical, which has minimum requirements for visual acuity, blood pressure and standing height. Other requirements are based on the astronaut position, as outlined below:
- Non-pilot candidates must have at least three years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for experience (a master's degree equals one year of experience, a doctoral degree equals three years of experience). Teaching experience, including experience at the K-12 levels, is considered to be qualifying experience for the astronaut candidate position.
- An advanced degree is also desirable for pilot candidates. More importantly, Pilot candidates must have at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Flight test experience is highly desirable.
According to nasa.gov, the salary range for an astronaut in 2017 was between $65,140 and $100,701. Their pay grade is determined according to their academic achievements and experience.
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