Becoming a NASA Astronaut and Military Service

Why Military Service Isn't Required But Can Help

Astronaut in large room
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Who hasn’t thought of becoming a NASA astronaut? While it’s not a requirement to be in the military in order to become an astronaut, it can aid your chances. Many military personnel have gone on to become astronauts.

According to NASA’s 2009 Astronaut Fact Book (NP-2013-04-003-JSC), there have been 44,658 individuals that have applied to become an astronaut. Of that pool, only 330 individuals have been accepted into the astronaut candidate program (48 females and 282 men), and over 200 served in the United States armed forces.

The Astronaut Fact Book was last updated in 2013.

Military Branches Represented in NASA

Every branch of service—including the U.S. Coast Guard—has had representation in the astronaut corps. NASA maintains a list of former astronauts and current astronauts with their biographies.

The Astronaut Fact Book does have a list by military affiliation (and by state of birth, which were Scouts, and EVA statistics for US astronauts, among other lists). I had some fun playing with the numbers. According to the 2009 fact book, the branches of the Armed Forces have been represented as follows:

  • United States Air Force - 81
  • United States Army - 15
  • United States Coast Guard – 2
  • United States Navy – 84
  • United States Marine Corps - 23

Some of the military astronauts have been, or still are, household names, such as Neil Armstrong (the first man to walk on the moon), Buzz Aldrin (piloted Apollo 11 and delivered Armstrong to the moon) and John Glenn (first American to orbit the Earth), for example.

History of Military Astronauts and NASA

In the beginning, the early astronauts came from the military because NASA wanted people who had test pilot experience and who had the willingness to face dangerous situations. For NASA’s first manned flight, the branches of the military were requested to provide a list of military test pilots who would qualify for Project Mercury.

After stringent screening, NASA announced its selection of the "Mercury Seven" as its first astronauts.The members of the Mercury Seven Astronauts were:

Astronaut Candidate Program

If interested in becoming an astronaut, active duty military personnel must submit applications for the Astronaut Candidate Program through their respective service.

After preliminary screening by the military, a small number of applications are submitted to NASA for further consideration. If selected, military personnel are detailed to NASA for a selected period of time and remain in an active duty status for pay, benefits, leave and other similar military matters.

What NASA Looks for in Candidates

Although post-baccalaureate degrees are preferred, NASA wants astronauts with at least a bachelor’s degree—specifically one focused on engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics.

NASA doesn't look for fresh-faced graduates. Prospective astronauts must have “at least three years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience” (Astronaut Selection and Training, PDF). A master's degree can replace one year of this requirement, and a doctoral can replace three years of the requirement. Pilots and commanders also need 1,000 hours of experience as a pilot-in-command.

NASA selects candidates from a diverse pool of applicants with a wide variety of backgrounds. From the thousands of applications received, only a few are chosen for the intensive Astronaut Candidate training program.