Want a job as a NASA astronaut? Read this – CNNMoney

 In Science
Full interview with astronaut Peggy Whitson

The starting pay is pretty good, depending on experience. The jobs are hard to get, and a lot of people want them.

It’s the job of an NASA astronaut. America is gearing up for a new era of human spaceflight — with plans to try to reach beyond the moon and perhaps to Mars. There’s a thriving commercial sector driven by companies like Boeing and Space X.

When NASA went looking for a new class of astronaut trainees, it got 18,300 applications. Only 12 were selected. They reported for duty last month for a grueling training program.

CNNMoney wanted to know more about an astronaut’s job. We spoke with Donald Pettit, NASA’s oldest active astronaut at age 62, and Greg Johnson, a former astronaut who is now the president of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

How do you qualify for the job?

NASA stipulates that qualified applicants must have a bachelor’s degree in a field of science, technology, engineering or math. Post-graduate study or work experience is also required. The space agency has trained astronauts with all sorts of backgrounds — such as a medical doctor, oceanographer, even a veterinarian.

Physical demands can be onerous. Applicants need good eyesight, must stand between 5’2″ and 6’3″ and have good blood pressure (“not to exceed 140/90” in a sitting position).

Candidates also must pass a difficult endurance test and impress the NASA team during a series of interviews.

“It’s a very special opportunity,” Johnson said. He advised the next class of astronaut candidates to “take advantage of it” because “for each astronaut, there’s 100 behind us equally qualified.”

Astronauts Endeavor April 2011
Greg Johnson, far left, was the pilot for the final Space Shuttle trip. The Endeavour mission, STS-134, took off in May 2011.

Then what?

Those who make the cut enter a two-year “training and evaluation” period.

“It’s like getting a full four-year college degree compressed into two years,” Pettit said. “There’s no summer breaks.”

Trainees learn skills that may come in handy if they’re selected for an actual mission.

Among the tasks:

— Swim laps in a 25-meter pool and tread water for 10 minutes while wearing a flight suit and tennis shoes.

— Become SCUBA certified. (The underwater environment is actually quite similar to the vacuum of space.)

— Ride up and down in a jet aircraft to mimic the zero-gravity environment in space. Trainees may take 40 of these rides in a single day.

— Learn to speak some Russian. Astronauts need to be able to talk with cosmonauts at the space station and communicate during launch.

Since the United States retired the Space Shuttle program in 2011, Russian space vehicles have ferried American astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Astronauts also have to get comfortable in the puffy white suits that astronauts wear when they go on space walks. And Pettit said it’s nothing like you see in the movies.

“They’re hot and uncomfortable, and when you get out of them, you kind of slither out of them like a worm…like a slimy creature that just crawled out of a chrysalis,” Pettit joked.

Daniel Barry Astronaut Underwater Training
Astronauts complete underwater training to simulate a space walk.

When do they go to space?

Even after astronauts complete the program, they still have to complete specific training based on what they’ll be doing in space. All that starts long before they reach the launch pad.

For example, if an astronaut is tapped to complete a six-month stint at the space station, it requires two to three years of extra training.

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