Would you like to be the first person to step on the face of Mars? Have your own Neil Armstrong moment forever marked in the history books children will study for generations to come? That might all sound really good to you, but there are practical considerations. One of those is finding out just how much astronauts make.
You might think an astronaut makes a lot of money, maybe as much as a professional basketball player or leading movie star. After all, it takes a lot of education in the sciences to qualify for a position with NASA. Plus, only the top of the crop from all the applicants will be selected.
Then, when you are an astronaut, you are risking your very life to complete a mission. It is sad to think about it, but it is something every current and future astronaut has to consider. Danger lurks in the shadows of every space mission.
Space Program Disasters
There have been three fatal disasters in the history of America’s space program: one during the Apollo missions and two in the space shuttle program. A total of seventeen brilliant and dedicated men and women, true American heroes, have been lost as a result.
NASA faced its first casualties with the Apollo I mission. Three of the nation’s finest men – Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee – were aboard to begin the series of smaller steps that would lead to Armstrong’s giant leap. An electrical wire shorted, causing a fire in the craft. The entire interior capsule was engulfed, making it impossible for the men to open the hatch to escape.
The crew of Apollo I.
Space Shuttle Challenger
Thirty years ago, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched into the atmosphere carrying a seven member crew: Commander Francis Scobee; pilot Michael Smith; mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Reznik, and Ronald McNair; and, payload specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, selected to be the first teacher in space. The nation gasped, cried, and grieved as the shuttle tore apart just 73 seconds into the launch, while national television was still covering the event live.
The resulting investigation pointed to the O-rings being faulty at temperatures encountered during the launch, and NASA was highly criticized for putting public relations before safety.
The crew of Space Shuttle Challenger.
Space Shuttle Columbia
The second shuttle disaster happened on February 1, 2003, as the Columbia re-entered the atmosphere. Only sixteen minutes before safe touchdown, the craft disintegrated in the atmosphere over Texas. Seven crew members were lost: Commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; payload commander Michael Anderson; payload specialist Ilan Ramon; and mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Blair Salton Clark.
This time, it was exterior foam insulation that was determined to be at fault. When this insulation came off during launch, it left parts of the shuttle exposed, which caused it to break apart as it re-entered the atmosphere.
The crew of Space Shuttle Columbia.
NASA’s Future Missions
Danger is inherent in discovery and adventure. Those with a drive to go where few men or women have gone before accept that risk as part of the regular order of what they do.
That is why an entire new generation is getting excited about space exploration in spite of the risks. When Mars One solicited applications for a one-way trip to colonize the red planet, the Dutch group received more than 200,000 responses. As of early 2015, that number had been narrowed down to 100. There are four seats available on the one-way mission. Additional launches will be made every couple of years, in individual pods like those shown here, until a viable colony is established.
Artist’s rendering of Mars One mission set up on the red planet.
Did I mention it is a one-way mission? Yet so many people are ready to suit up and go. That is the spirit of discovery and adventure forever alive in the human race that ensures there will be no shortage of astronaut applicants now that NASA is talking about returning to the moon, proposing that our only natural satellite can be used as a launch pad of sorts for manned missions to mars.
The Right Stuff
We should probably look now at exactly what the qualifications are to be a part of NASA’s astronaut program so that you can start getting things in order, doing what needs to be done, to make sure you have “the right stuff” as NASA sees it.
A successful astronaut candidate will have at least a bachelor’s degree in one of the scientific fields like engineering, computer science, physics, mathematics, or biology. Along with this degree, the applicant will have three years of increasingly responsible experience in their chosen field. It is safe to say that only the best and the brightest with solid reputations in their chose fields will be considered viable candidates.
Excellent health is a prerequisite for all astronauts, both physically and mentally. Physically, an astronaut must be between 4 foot 8.5 inches and 6 foot 4 inches tall. His or her vision must be correctable to 20/20 vision in each eye, either by wearing glasses or through lasik vision correction. Requirements for the International Space Station are a little more stringent, with height being between 5 foot 2 inches and six foot 3 inches. Vision must be at least 20/100 in each eye, correctable to 20/20.
The rewards of space exploration are far more than a paycheck. There is the pride of a job well done and the contribution made to both science and the betterment of humanity. You may have schools and streets named after you. Still, we have to pay for food, shelter, and other niceties, so getting paid a fair salary does matter.
NASA pays its astronauts on the Federal Government’s General Schedule at the GS11 through GS14 levels. That range begins at a minimum $51,298 for those with a Master’s degree and tops out at $112,319 with astronauts with a PhD.
If you are looking for that salary range without all the stress and risk, you might consider becoming a patent attorney, geophysicist, or senior IT engineer instead. If you are thinking of being an astronaut because you love aviation, jobs like flight engineer and air traffic controller are also paying out at around $100K annually. You could run for President of the United States, another lofty goal, and be paid about four times what an astronaut makes.
There many interesting stories surrounding the Apollo XI crew that landed the first man on the moon. A couple of them are related to how much they are paid.
The first one is a little funny and tells us a bit about the bureaucracy of NASA. In 1967, an astronaut’s pay was around $17,000 per year. That’s consistent with the $112,319 of a GS14 today. For those flying to the moon on Apollo XI, NASA added hazard pay of $8 per diem, equal to about $650 today.
The funny thing is that NASA also deducted an undisclosed amount from that per diem for the accommodations provided during flight. NASA was giving them a place to sleep during the mission, after all. Hopefully the deduction was more along the lines of a night at a Motel 6 than that of a Hyatt.
Also, it was impossible for the Apollo 11 crew to get life insurance to provide for their families in case they did not survive the trip, and it was a toss up whether or not they would. The cost for an annual policy was quoted at $50,000. No one could pay that on a $17,000 salary so the astronauts got creative.
They spent the month they were in pre-flight isolation putting their signatures on hundreds of envelopes with various mission related pictures printed on them. They put a postage stamp on each one, and then sent this bundle of envelopes to a friend on the outside who took the envelopes to the post office so that they would be postmarked on July 16, 1969.
Apollo XI insurance envelope.
How to Apply
To submit yourself for consideration as a candidate for the position of astronaut with NASA, all you have to do is visit the government’s jobs web site. Search for the position you want (astronaut) and follow the instructions to apply online. That begins the long process of reference checking that culminates about two years later in the next class of astronauts being announced.
Unfortunately, if you do that today, you will not find any openings for astronauts. The most recent Vacancy Announcement for astronaut applications was opened on December 14, 2015 and closed on February 18, 2016. The class of astronauts NASA selects from this group will report to the Johnson Space Center in August 2017.
Maybe the next Vacancy Announcement will be posted in December 2017, and you can get on board then. Don’t be disappointed if it takes several tries, though. There were more than 6,000 applicants for the 2013 class and only eight openings.
And keep in mind that the year 2019 is really just right around the corner. Look at the intervening years as just more time to improve your qualifications. You can complete your degree, add a second major in one of the accepted fields, or go for your master’s or doctorate. Get into the best physical condition you can, too. Having “the right stuff” is critical if you want to be a NASA astronaut. No matter how much or little you might make exploring in space, the rewards are huge. Thanks for reading!