Careers in Spaceflight

Citation metadata

Editor: John F. McCoy
Date: 2012
Space Sciences
From: Space Sciences(Vol. 3: Humans in Space. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 8
Content Level: (Level 5)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 43

Careers in Spaceflight

Human spaceflight is one of the most exciting professional fields today. Those who work in it are pioneers of an endless frontier filled with challenges, adventure, and scientific discovery. The most widely known space-flight career is of the astronaut. There are two categories of astronauts currently available in the U.S. manned space program, which is only using astronauts for its operations with the International Space Station after the space shuttle program (formally called the Space Transportation System) ended on August 31, 2011. These positions are commander and flight engineer. For instance, NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy Captain Scott J. Kelly was commander of ISS Expedition 26 from November 2010 to May 2011, on the International Space Station.

Although the astronaut is a career that is most commonly associated with human spaceflight the position accounts for only a small proportion of the jobs in the field. From engineers and physicians to web designers and educators, human spaceflight has career opportunities for anyone who is fascinated by the final frontier of space.

Human Spaceflight in the Twenty-First Century

Most human spaceflight activity is concentrated in the United States and Russia (former Soviet Union). These two nations have launched the most people into space, although China became the third country to

Page 44  |  Top of Article

send humans into space when, on October 15, 2003, it sent Yang Liwei in orbit about Earth for about 21 hours. In addition, the first privately funded manned venture (called Tier One) into space was accomplished on June 21, 2004, when Scaled Composites sent its SpaceShipOne, with commercial astronaut Mike Melvill as its pilot, into a suborbital flight. Other countries have human space programs but, as of 2011, their astronauts must fly aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicles.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the focus of most human space activity. This facility, which is scheduled for completion in 2012, is a collaborative effort of the United States (through its National Aeronautics and Space Administration), Russia (Russian Federal Space Agency), eighteen European nations (the European Space Agency within the European Union), Japan (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), and Canada (Canadian Space Agency). As of September 1, 2011, six crewmembers are currently living and working aboard the ISS on a full-time basis. In addition, crewmembers from all five organizations have been represented as crewmembers of the ISS at some point in over ten years of continuous human presence, which began on November 2, 2000, with the ISS Expedition 1 crew.

People who are employed in human spaceflight usually work for government agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or one of the many contractors that support those agencies. Boeing, for example, was the prime contractor on ISS up until 2010. It designed and built all of the major U.S. elements of the ISS, along with having the responsibility of integrating the hardware and software components on the vessel. In March 2010, Boeing turned over responsibility (what is informally called “handing over the keys”) to NASA for the U.S. segment of the ISS after verifying the delivery, assembly, integration, and activation of all its hardware and software.

Many other contractors provide goods and services related to space-flight and exploration to the government and other organizations. For instance United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of The Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin, provides spacecraft launch services to the U.S. government, primarily to the Department of Defense and NASA. ULA uses three expendable launch systems: Delta II, Delta IV, and Atlas V. As such the company needs many employees to provide the vast activities that ULA performs for the country's space programs.

What Kinds of Jobs Are Available?

There are tens of thousands of jobs in human spaceflight. A comprehensive listing of all of the job categories is beyond the scope of this article. Listed below are several broad categories of the jobs that exist in the early twenty-first century.

Astronauts This is probably the most visible and interesting job in human spaceflight. It is also one of the most competitive. However, if one has the “right stuff,” one can become a space voyager. There are two

Page 45  |  Top of Article

categories of astronauts for the International Space Station program: commander and flight engineers. Candidates for these positions typically need a bachelor's degree in biological sciences, engineering, physical sciences, or mathematics from an accredited institution. All candidates must be able to pass a rigorous NASA physical examination.

Commanders are pilot astronauts. As such, they have overall responsibility for the vehicle, crew, mission success, and flight safety. The minimum requirement for a commander/pilot astronaut candidate is a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, a biological or physical science, or mathematics. However, service in the U.S. Air Force can exempt this requirement. An advanced degree is desirable. The quality of the academic preparation is important. At least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft are necessary. Flight test experience is highly desirable. Applicants must pass a NASA Class I space physical, which is similar to a military or civilian Class I flight physical, and includes the following specific standards:

  • Distant visual acuity: 20/70 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, each eye
  • Blood pressure: not greater than 140/90 measured in a sitting position
  • Height: between 162.6 and 193 centimeters (62 and 76 inches)
  • Eye surgical procedures are allowed, but at least one year must have passed from the date of application without any permanent problems from the procedure

Flight engineers are responsible for coordinating activities on ISS missions, including overseeing experiments, managing payloads* , and conducting space walks. For a flight engineer astronaut candidate, an individual must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, a biological or physical science, or mathematics. The degree must be followed by at least three years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for part or the entire experience requirement (a master's degree is considered equivalent to one year of experience, while a doctoral degree equals three years of experience). The quality of the academic preparation is important. Individuals must also pass a NASA Class II space physical, which is similar to a military or civilian Class II flight physical, and includes the following specific standards:

Sidebar: HideShow

* payload any cargo launched aboard a rocket that is destined for space, including communications satellites or modules, supplies, equipment, and astronauts; does not include the vehicle used to move the cargo or the propellant that powers the vehicle

  • Distance visual acuity: 20/200 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, each eye
  • Blood pressure: not greater than 140/90 measured in a sitting position
  • Height: between 157.5 and 193.0 centimeters (58.5 and 76 inches)

Private organizations are now gearing up to send paying customers into space. Consequently, pilots are needed for these pioneering flights. A new

Page 46  |  Top of Article

type of astronaut has resulted, what is being called a commercial astronaut. These professional astronauts will be trained to command, pilot, or serve as crewmembers on privately funded spacecraft. Commercial astronauts do not participate in government sponsored space missions, but are involved with privately funded endeavors to launch spacecraft into space. As such, each company will insist on it own strict requirements for its astronauts; however, no doubt it will be in line with what NASA requires for its own astronauts.

Launch and Flight Operations NASA and its contractors maintain a small army of engineers and technicians who oversee every aspect of operating and maintaining the ISS. This group includes engineers and technicians who maintain aspects of the space station* , planners who determine mission goals, and flight controllers who supervise all aspects of the mission.

Sidebar: HideShow

* space station large orbital outpost equipped to support a human crew and designed to remain in orbit for an extended period; to date, only Earth-orbiting space stations have been launched

Payload Management Payload management technicians and engineers prepare the payloads that are sent into space. Most payloads launched today on rockets consist of satellites bound to orbit around Earth, unmanned re-supply craft sent to the International Space Station, or space probes sent to one or several bodies within the Solar System.

Training Astronauts go through extensive training before flying in space. Trainers run simulators that mimic the actions of the space station. Astronauts also practice in water tanks to simulate the effects of zero gravity (the perceived lack of gravity, sometimes also called microgravity) in outer space.

NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station prepare for a space walk on July 12, 2011. From left to right they are Flight Engineer Mike Fossum, Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson, Mission Specialist Rex Walheim, and Flight Engineer Ron

NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station prepare for a space walk on July 12, 2011. From left to right they are Flight Engineer Mike Fossum, Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson, Mission Specialist Rex Walheim, and Flight Engineer Ron Garan. © NASA/Getty Images News/Getty Images.

Page 47  |  Top of Article

Support Scientists Scientific research is a major component of the space program. Astronauts conduct scientific experiments to understand the effects of weightlessness on materials. This research has commercial applications in the areas of new medicines, semiconductors* , and advanced materials such as nanomaterials.

Sidebar: HideShow

* semiconductor one of the groups of elements with properties intermediate between the metals and nonmetals

Medical Personnel Space agencies have doctors and support personnel who monitor the health of astronauts. They also help conduct experiments on the effects of zero gravity and space radiation on the human body. This research is considered crucial in preparation for sending humans to Mars or to other bodies far out in space.

Engineering and Design Engineers and technicians work on improvements on existing vehicles and design new vehicles and space hardware. For instance, in the early 2010s, these professionals will be working on the next-generation rockets and spacecraft that will replace those formerly used in the NASA space shuttle program. A multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) is being developed by NASA to transport astronauts into deep space. Initially designed to take astronauts to an asteroid, it may later be modified for lengthier trips, such as those to the planet Mars. The MPCV will also be designed as a backup vehicle for unmanned and manned missions to the ISS. Lockheed Martin is designing and building it. With the money previously used for trips into low-Earth orbit, NASA is expanding its role for deep space human exploration.

Private companies are also ramping their engineering and desire work on space-based projects. For instance, twenty-six companies competed for the Ansari X PRIZE, a $10 million award for the first privately financed space vehicle that achieves suborbital flight and can repeat the flight within ten days to demonstrate reusability and quick turnaround. That feat was accomplished in its first step, on September 29, 2004, when Mike Melvill flew spacecraft SpaceShipOne on a suborbital flight past the internationally recognized boundary of space (100 kilometers, or about 62 miles above the surface of Earth). Then, on October 4, 2004, pilot Brian Binnie completed the second step, when he also flew SpaceShipOne on another suborbital flight into space.

NASA funding has targeted that the agency promote development of U.S. based private (commercial) launch capacity and other space-based activities. Consequently, new and exciting engineering and design opportunities are available in both the public and private sectors of the U.S. aerospace industry.

Education and Public Relations Governments and private companies are using the Internet, cable and satellite television, and other multimedia technologies to convey the excitement of human spaceflight to students and the public. These developments are producing job opportunities for journalists, educators, web designers, and editors.

Page 48  |  Top of Article

NASA has a major presence on the World Wide Web and an extensive educational outreach program. The NASA Quest Web site (< >) is an excellent source of information about space careers. The site features profiles and journals that provide visitors with a broad cross section of the personnel who work in human spaceflight. The employees explain their jobs, educational backgrounds, and what inspired them to pursue a career in space.

Support Staff NASA and aerospace companies are similar to most other organizations in their need for non-technical personnel, such as office managers, accountants, and administrative assistants. Even without an interest in engineering or science, a person can be a pioneer in the final frontier.

What Education Is Required?

Most jobs in human spaceflight are technical or scientific, requiring four to ten years of college. A four-year bachelor's degree in science or engineering generally is considered the minimum requirement for the majority of entry-level positions in the industry.

Beyond the bachelor's degree, one can choose to obtain a master's or doctoral degree. Master's degrees usually require at least two years of study. Doctoral degrees can require two to four years of work beyond a master's degree.

Government agencies such as NASA and many private aerospace companies have tuition assistance programs that allow employees to earn advanced degrees on a part-time basis. It is common for a person to earn a bachelor's degree, take an entry-level position in industry or government, and then earn an additional degree while working full-time.

Engineers and scientists do not necessarily need a master's or doctoral degree in their field of expertise. Management and business skills are highly valued in any organization and are usually necessary for moving up through the ranks of management. Often a good way to develop these skills is to earn a bachelor's degree in a technical field such as aerospace or mechanical engineering and then obtain a management credential such as a master of business administration (MBA) degree.

In The Future

The ISS will be completed around 2012. Space agencies and aerospace companies around the world are looking beyond the program to two possible futures: human flights to other bodies in the inner Solar System and space tourism in Earth orbit. Both of these developments could have a major impact on the types of jobs that will be available in human spaceflight.

Early missions to Mars or the Moon could include the establishment of scientific bases. These jobs would require essentially the same mix of skills for astronauts and engineers that are required by the current space program. Requirements for scientists would be different, however. Astronauts who go to other worlds—and the scientists working with

Page 49  |  Top of Article

them on Earth—will need backgrounds in a variety of fields, such as life sciences, biology, geology, and atmospheric sciences.

Human settlements could follow initial scientific exploration. Full-scale lunar and Martian colonies eventually would include most of the jobs found on Earth. These colonies would need scientists, technicians, construction workers, bankers, administrators, and journalists, for example.

Space tourism is another possible development during the next twenty years. In early 2001, Dennis Tito became the first space tourist (sometimes also called spaceflight participant) when he spent a week on the ISS. More flights of tourists, organized by Space Adventures Ltd. (Vienna, Virginia), to the ISS occurred over the next few years. In fact, in 2002, Mark Shuttleworth (South Africa/U.K.) became the second space tourist. He was followed by Gregory Olsen (U.S.) in 2005, Anousheh Ansari (Iran/U.S.) in 2006, Charles Simonyi (Hungary/U.S.) in 2007, Richard Garriott (U.S.) in 2008, and Guy Laliberté (Canada) in 2009. Simonyi became the first space tourist to fly twice into space when he returned to space in March 26, 2009. Tourism on Earth is already a mega-billion-dollar industry. Advocates believe that space tourism could also become a huge industry.

Companies are developing vehicles that could enable tourists to take suborbital flights in the late 2010s. In fact, Virgin Galactic is now tentatively scheduled to fly its first commercial suborbital flight sometime in the mid-2010s. Orbital flights on private spacecraft could follow soon thereafter. Companies such as Bigelow Aerospace are developing privately funded space modules that would be leased for a variety of purposes such as biotech research, microgravity experiments, and astronautic design. In addition, Space Adventures, Ltd. is developing space packages that will someday take space tourists on trips around the Moon.

When space tourism develops during the coming decades, it will generate jobs similar to those that exist in the travel industry today. The industry will need pilots, flight attendants, travel agents, baggage handlers, and many other such employees. In response to the growing space tourism business, the Space Tourism Society was founded in 1996 and UniGalactic Space Travel magazine was launched in 2009.


Books and Articles

Careers in Aerospace Engineering: Aeronautics-Astronautics. Chicago: Institute for Career Research, 2003.

Page 50  |  Top of Article

Committee on Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration. Building a Better NASA Workforce. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2007.

Feather, Judith Light, and Miguel F. Aznar. Nanoscience Education, Work-force Training, and K-12 Resources. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2011.


Challenger Center for Space Science Education. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

Fact Sheets: Astronaut Selection and Training; and NASA Careers. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

Look to the Future: Careers in Space. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

NASA Human Spaceflight. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

NASA Quest. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

NASA selects Orion derivative for deep space missions. CBS News. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

Opportunities in Our Nation's Space Program. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. < > (accessed September 2, 2011). . < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

Space Tourism Society. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

U.S. Space Camp. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

Welcome to the NASA Career Expo. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

X PRIZE Foundation. < > (accessed September 2, 2011).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4019600180