Do you dream of becoming an astronaut? Have you been inspired by the 50th anniversary of the moon landings or Tim Peake’s experiences on the International Space Station (ISS)? In this new series we uncover how to make your dream job a reality, whilst giving you some great alternatives to consider.
Astronaut is one of the most competitive careers in the world. Although it’s great to have a goal, this article will also tell you about alternative careers to consider. The good news is that the UK is a world leader in the space sector; it directly employs almost 42,000 people and there are predicted to be more opportunities in the future.
What is involved?
Astronauts travel into space; those who work on the ISS do stints of six months or more. Astronauts take on different roles according to their skills. There may be opportunities, for instance, for those with a background in medicine or piloting military jets.
While in space, an astronaut’s schedule is mapped out for them. They may:
- command or pilot the spacecraft
- unload and install equipment and supplies
- check and maintain water systems, oxygen levels, air filters and waste processors
- conduct scientific experiments
- be a subject in experiments to investigate the impact of space on the human body
- go on spacewalks to repair damage
- provide data, reports and test results for colleagues back on Earth.
Microgravity means that eating, washing and sleeping are difficult, so these can take up much of an astronaut’s time. They also have to spend a couple of hours each day exercising to stop their muscles from wasting and to minimise the loss of bone mass.
Astronauts spend years training before going into space, and they have to maintain their skills and support other missions when on Earth. They also have a role to play in promoting the space sector, especially to young people.
Do you have what it takes?
Not surprisingly, astronauts need a range of skills, capabilities and characteristics. Those selected must be in excellent physical and mental health. They also need:
- technological and scientific skills
- analytical and reasoning skills
- leadership ability
- teamworking skills
- physical coordination and dexterity
- good judgement and decision-making skills
- to cope well under pressure and in confined spaces
- concentration and observational skills.
Space travel is an international effort, so the ability to speak a foreign language, especially Russian, is an asset.
How to become an astronaut
The European Space Agency (ESA) very occasionally recruits astronauts. Competition is fierce – Tim Peak, Britain’s first ESA astronaut, beat thousands of other hopefuls! Helen Sharman is the only other Brit to have gone into space under the UK flag.
Applicants for astronaut training need to have studied a scientific or technical subject to at least master’s degree level followed by three plus years’ experience. So you would be at least 27 by the time you would be ready to apply.
The UK Space Agency is a member of ESA, so if you think you have what it takes, check the ESA website to find out if/when they are recruiting and to apply directly.
After a rigorous selection process, there’s a year’s basic training, a year’s advanced training and then mission-specific training (although there’s no guarantee of getting to this stage). The training is tailored and may take place anywhere in the world.
The space industry has many opportunities which could act as a stepping-stone towards becoming an astronaut, or as an alternative career.
Employers in the space sector include:
- commercial space companies – from those designing spacecraft instruments to companies working on plans for commercial space travel
- government departments and agencies, e.g. the UK Space Agency
- universities, including major research centres such as Jodrell Bank, run by the University of Manchester
- government-funded research centres, e.g. the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre.
It would be impossible to list all the careers available in the space sector, but the following gives you an idea of the range:
- engineers design and develop components, systems and software used on spacecraft, satellites and probes; experts are needed in mechanical, electrical and electronic systems, propulsion, robotics, software…
- astronomers and astrophysicists use the principles and laws of physics to explain how planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies and so on are formed and function
- astrobiologists examine how organisms react to different environments and assess the possibility of life in space
- Earth observation scientists use remote sensors to gather data and images to analyse the impact of climate change etc.
- planetary scientists study planets and moons to learn about their composition and formation
- technicians support engineers and scientists and may be involved in research, assembly work, testing and maintenance.
You can find more on these and other careers on SpaceCareers.uk.
For entry to most space careers you need a degree. There are specialist courses, e.g. in aerospace engineering, astrophysics, and Earth and planetary science, but you can take a broader-based science or technical degree and specialise at postgraduate level. Check the entry requirements for degree courses.
How to get experience
For any career in the sector, do all you can to stand out from the crowd. Try to get relevant experience by approaching employers in the space sector. Participate in taster days, competitions, space schools and astronomy camps. The National Space Academy offers masterclasses and careers activities. UKSEDS – UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space also runs a wide range of activities.
Becoming an astronaut may seem like an unrealistic dream, but for a few it can become a reality. It’s important to remember that for every astronaut there are thousands of people supporting their mission and the space sector offers all sorts of exciting opportunities.
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients including Health Careers, the Royal Society of Chemistry and English Heritage.