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Careers in Spaceflight

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. Although being an astronaut is the career most commonly associated with human spaceflight, that 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.

Human Spaceflight in the Twenty-First Century

Most human spaceflight activity is concentrated in the United States and Russia. Only these two nations have launched people into space, although China is testing a craft that will be capable of supporting human space travelers. Other countries have human space programs, but their astronauts must fly aboard the American space shuttle or the Russian Soyuz vehicle.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the focus of most human space activity. This facility, which is scheduled for completion around 2006, is a collaborative effort of the United States, Russia, twelve European nations, Japan, and Canada. Seven astronauts could eventually live and work aboard the ISS on a full-time basis.

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, is the prime contractor on ISS, and the United Space Alliance (USA) oversees the shuttle program for NASA. Many smaller contractors provide goods and services to the government and other contractors.

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.


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 star voyager. There are three categories of astronauts: commander/pilot, mission specialist, and payload specialist. Candidates for these positions typically need a bachelor's degree in biological sciences, engineering, physical sciences, or mathematics from an accredited institution. Candidates must be able to pass a rigorous physical examination and be between 64 and 76 inches tall.

Commander/pilot astronauts fly the space shuttle. Candidates must have at least 1,000 hours of experience commanding a jet aircraft. NASA also prefers experience as a test pilot. Many pilots have experience in the military. Mission specialists are responsible for coordinating activities on space shuttle flights, including overseeing experiments, managing payloads , and conducting space walks. Payload specialists tend to specific experiments or equipment during a flight. Mission specialists must have at least three years of professional experience in their field of expertise. They may substitute a master's or doctoral degree for part or all of the work requirement. Payload specialists usually must meet similar requirements.

Launch and Flight Operations.

NASA and its contractors maintain a small army of engineers and technicians who oversee every aspect of flying the space shuttle. This group includes engineers and technicians who maintain the shuttles, planners who determine mission goals, the launch team that prepares the vehicle for takeoff, and flight controllers who supervise all aspects of the mission. Flight controllers also oversee space station operations.

Payload Management.

Payload management technicians and engineers prepare the payloads that are sent into space. Most payloads launched today on the shuttle consist of modules, equipment, and supplies bound for the ISS.


Astronauts go through extensive training before flying in space. Trainers run simulators that mimic the actions of the space shuttle and the space station. Astronauts also practice in water tanks to simulate the effects of zero gravity.

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.

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 radiation on the human body. This research is considered crucial in preparation for sending humans to Mars.

Engineering and Design.

Engineers and technicians improve existing vehicles such as the space shuttle and design new vehicles and space hardware. In 2001 NASA initiated a $4.5 billion program to work with private companies to develop technologies that will lead to a replacement for the space shuttle.

Twenty companies also are competing for the 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.

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.

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 nontechnical personnel, such as office managers, accountants, and administrative assistants. Even without an interest in engineering or science, a person can be a pioneer on 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 2006. Space agencies and aerospace companies around the world are looking beyond the program to two possible futures: human flights to other worlds 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 the Moon and Mars would 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 worldsand the scientists working with them on Earthwill 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 when he spent a week on the ISS. More flights of tourists to the ISS are possible in the coming years. Tourism on Earth is already a megabillion-dollar industry. Advocates believe that space tourism could become an even larger industry. Companies are developing vehicles that could enable tourists to take suborbital flights by 2005. Orbital flights on private spacecraft could follow by 2015. If space tourism develops during the coming decades, it will generate jobs similar to those which exist in the travel industry today. The industry will need pilots, flight attendants, travel agents, baggage handlers, and other employees.

see also Astronauts, Types of (volume 3); Career Astronauts (volume 1); Careers in Business and Program Management (volume 1); Careers in Rocketry (volume 1); Careers in Space Medicine (volume 1); Mission Specialists (volume 3); Payload Specialists (volume 3).

Douglas M. Messier


National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Careers in Aerospace Technology. Colorado Springs, CO: Space Foundation, 1996.

Sacknoff, Scott, and Leonard David. The Space Publication's Guide to Space Careers. Bethesda, MD: Space Publications, 1998.

Internet Resources

Challenger Center for Space Science Education. <>.

Messier, Douglas. "Do You Have the Right Stuff?" Space Jobs. March 2000. <>.

Messier, Douglas. "Fly Me to the Moon, Let Me Play among the Stars." Space Jobs. February 2000. <>.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Astronaut Selection and Training Fact Sheet. <>.

NASA Human Spaceflight. <>.

NASA Quest. <>.

Space Jobs. <>.

U.S. Space Camp. <>.

X PRIZE Foundation. <>.

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