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So you want to be an astronaut

9 Jan 2017

Is it your dream to be a space traveller? With today’s scientific advancements, it’s only becoming more and more possible. But what do you need to do to get there?

Hands up who said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut’?

What once seemed so impossible has become a very real career track. Of course, it’s still incredibly competitive and only a select few will be able to make the journey.

But do you have what it takes?

What you need

First, a bit of admin. To apply for a space agency, you need to be a member of that country. Therefore, only American citizens can apply to NASA, but luckily, Ireland is one of several member countries of the ESA.

Next up, your education. At the absolute minimum, a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field will be essential for NASA or ESA.

If you want to be a pilot astronaut, you will also need to clock up at least 1,000 flight hours in a jet aircraft.

Traditionally, the candidates that have been chosen have much more than the minimum requirements and with so much competition, a master’s degree or a PhD are a good idea. Not to mention plenty of experience in a related field.

Donal O’Gorman from the health and human performance department in Dublin City University said the variation of the work that space agencies do leaves plenty of scope for you to choose your ideal career.

“I know a US astronaut who was a physiologist studying cardiovascular physiology… so it depends what NASA and the ESA are looking for.”

O’Gorman also said a military background is a popular choice because they “can command or lead or fly”.

Fit as a fiddle

Aside from all of your qualifications, you will need to be in top mental and physical condition. The rigorous health tests have been known to knock out a huge amount of otherwise qualified candidates.

And for good reason.

A number of things will happen to your body while you’re up in space, so you need to be in the right condition to withstand these things. “When people go into space, they don’t tend to use as much energy,” said O’Gorman. “[But] they will lose muscle mass and bone density.”

Astronauts can also suffer from cardiac issues. A study last year showed that deep space astronauts were more likely to suffer from cardiovascular problems than those whose missions lay closer to home. O’Gorman also cited research into the effects on eye pressure.

You must pass the psychological tests, too. “A number of evaluations [are] conducted to ensure the person has the psychological attributes to go into space.”

If you suffer from claustrophobia, this will be a problem. If you want to be an astronaut, not only will you need to be able to cope in small spaces, but you’ll need to work with other people in those small confines.

So we know it’s good to be prepared for the physical and psychological tests and it’s important to have a very strong STEM background – but what’s on the horizon for space agencies?

O’Gorman said that along with the usual suspects such as engineers and physicists, scientists with a clinical background will most likely be sought after in the near future.

“In terms of NASA and ESA, both are thinking of longer-term missions; both are thinking of Mars.”

This means they will need candidates who can work towards sustaining longer periods of space travel. “Sustainability is going to be important in terms of health and environments,” O’Gorman added.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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