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What is an Astronaut?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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An astronaut is someone who is trained to operate or work aboard spacecraft. Many of these people work for government-sponsored space programs, although in the early 21st century, private firms began working in space as well. Astronauts are often figures of awe and admiration in their communities, and this adulation is well deserved; they endure grueling schedules and training programs for years before they are even allowed to go into space. They are also at the peak of physical fitness, and most are extremely intelligent.

Manned spaceflight began in Russia in 1961, when Yuri Gagarin was blasted in orbit by the Soviet space program. The United States quickly followed suit, and these two nations have dominated spaceflight historically, although citizens of several other countries have been into space as well. International cooperation between national space programs resulted in the foundation of the International Space Station in 1998. Russian astronauts are known as cosmonauts, although the two terms can be used interchangeably.

Because the area on a spacecraft is extremely limited, astronauts are cross-trained to perform a number of tasks. A pilot, for example, might also be trained to carry out scientific experiments, or to work on equipment repairs. In space, these professionals pilot their craft, conduct experiments, and observe the Earth from their unique point of view. They generally have an extensive knowledge of astronomy, physics, and other sciences, and they must also be good at working cooperatively with people in cramped spaces.

Training to become an astronaut is very demanding, and space programs only accept a limited number of people as trainees. Applicants must pass physical and psychological examinations and submit to regular exams to ensure that they stay fit for the job. These exams include stress tests to determine whether or not the candidate will be able to handle the unique conditions in space. A bachelor's degree and related experience are often required, along with experience piloting jet aircraft, if someone wants to become a pilot.

When someone is accepted for training, he or she will spend months at a training facility and in a variety of conditions that simulate the environment of space. These people actually spend most of their time on the ground, since seats on flights are very limited. National space programs occasionally allow special visitors to have seats on space flights, if those individuals can demonstrate that their inclusion will benefit the mission; these visitors must also endure the training.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon268040 — On May 12, 2012

Becoming an astronaut seems to be a very demanding job and it shows that to become one, one has to be an extensive personality. Well, I have a dream to become an astronaut since childhood and this is not only because of the "fun-factor" nor as well for a "celebrity status." I want to do something extraordinary, that no one has done ever before. But I'm just confused about the process and the requirements.

Can somebody with great interest who is academically good and who's from a different field, for example, one who's taken up environmental science as their forte, can they also aspire to become astronauts? I'm just 17 and I'm very confused about this subject matter. What can I do, or let's say what I should proceed towards so that I can see myself aspiring towards becoming an astronaut? -~Aastha

By malmal — On Jun 10, 2011

@Malka - I agree! I'll bet when Neil Armstrong became an astronaut, he didn't particularly think he would become famous for doing so. The same goes the the Apollo astronauts. I mean, there's a certain level of celebrity that comes with even getting into such a selective profession, but I don't think becoming famous is really why astronauts become astronauts anyway.

Because they multi task while on space missions, my theory is that many astronauts are also either very into technology -- like space shuttles, robotic arms, and space suits --, very into science -- such as growing plants in zero gravity, studying the effects of space travel on humans, and collecting samples of space materials -- or both.

In short, I think the astronauts that truly succeed are the ones that do their jobs because they love them. Becoming famous, admired, a celebrity or even a figure that goes down in history are all nice perks, but aren't the true goal here.

If I became an astronaut, the first and foremost reason that I would do it is to go into outer space! That and to encourage people to colonize the moon. I think a moon colony is a very possible plan for the future -- heck, we've already landed there once, why not again? It's much closer than Mars.

By Malka — On Jun 09, 2011

it sounds like being an astronaut is a very grueling job that requires a rare kind of person: an individual who is in excellent physical shape, has great coordination, is highly intelligent, works well with others, and does well under stress. Astronauts have to be exceptional people before they even start their astronaut training at that rate!

Becoming a famous astronaut might take more dumb luck than skill above your fellow astronauts, though; since space is a new frontier to explore, astronauts are constantly doing things that nobody has ever done before, and it seems like you become famous as an astronaut if you happen to be the one to discover something new, or to get to do a certain task first out of everyone.

By TheGraham — On Jun 08, 2011

@gimbell - I dearly hope somebody gets to the point of colonizing Mars or the moon during my lifetime! I'm still young, but I'm sure it's going to take awhile to get technology to that kind of level.

The first astronaut didn't have the same technological stuff the astronauts have today, and the same is true for landing on the moon, and I'm sure will be true for colonization.

I think we've gotten so muddled down in worrying about safety and about whose family will sue if they get themselves killed doing a risky profession that we tend to forget that the first astronauts had it very risky up there.

Just like you said in that analogy about the old west, risks are going to need to be taken to get anything done. The settlers in the old west faced a ton of dangers, and many did not survive their attempts to settle the land, but in the end we came out with a country. Imagine that happening again on Mars or the moon!

I hope I live to see it, I really do. If not to see an actual colony, then to see substantial progress in that direction.

By gimbell — On Jun 05, 2011

@VivAnne - There is also the matter of an astronaut's salary. People tend to assume that just because space missions cost millions of dollars, the people involved get paid a lot too, but that isn't the case of course.

Anyway, all cynicism aside, I think kids should be encouraged to want to become astronauts. The space program is important -- I personally believe that it will be for the good of all mankind if we can colonize the moon and even mars so that we aren't plagued with an overpopulation problem anymore.

Maybe things would end up like the old west, with land on Mars being offered to anybody who will travel there and colonize it. It would literally be watching science fiction become science fact.

By VivAnne — On Jun 03, 2011

Becoming an astronaut is actually a pretty demanding job. The movies and the media show you the glamorous reasons for becoming one: you get to go into outer space, wear space suits, use the most advanced technology NASA has, float around in zero gravity, and likely go down in history.

On the down side, going into space is dangerous since you're in a vacuum with literally no air, and there's a threat of being exposed to deadly space radiation if you don't wear the proper shielding gear.

That, and most of your work as an astronaut will probably involve mind-numbing hours of doing little science experiments, reading, eating and sleeping in zero-G while you wait for the shuttle to come take you home to Earth again, and being frustrated that you're not going to Mars like you hoped when you chose to become an astronaut.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't become astronaut, just that you shouldn't idealize it too much. it's a job like any other -- there are difficulties with the fun stuff! It's not all just astronaut ice-cream, as my dad says.

By miriam98 — On Jun 03, 2011

@hamje32 - Speaking as a woman, I am glad that the space program has been opened up to women who want to work in NASA. I was really proud to see Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, aboard the Space Shuttle in the early eighties. Women have really proven themselves as capable astronauts.

Of course, she was preceded by other women who paved the way, some of whom passed NASA’s training program but were not admitted as astronauts until times changed.

Nowadays there is no restriction on becoming an astronaut, based on gender. If my daughter announced she wanted to become an astronaut someday, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

By hamje32 — On Jun 03, 2011

@NathanG - I think many children dream of working in the space program, for the reasons you mentioned. Star Wars, Star Trek, etc., make it seem like so much fun, in addition to the televised launches of our own rocket flights.

For Halloween my son wore a kid’s astronaut costume which was a real attention getter, in addition to being really toasty to wear, but he loved it and he was very popular with the other kids. I think he got more candy than they did too.

By NathanG — On Jun 03, 2011

I can’t stay in confined quarters without getting dizzy so I could never be an astronaut myself, although I’m sure there are probably some other requirements that would have disqualified me as well. I actually dreamed about becoming an astronaut when I was a kid, but at the time I was just thinking about the space program in general.

I remember giving a presentation in sixth grade where I displayed pictures of the various rockets in the space program and gave some interesting facts about NASA. Like many, I was awed with the prospect of space flight—fueled by science fiction movies which glamorized the profession—but alas, years later I find myself in a desk job, although working in “virtual space” as a programmer.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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