Becoming a NASA Astronaut and Military Service

Why Military Service Is Not 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. Since the first astronauts were selected in 1959 (from all military pilots), NASA has evolved to include not only pilots, but scientists, doctors, engineers,

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. Typically, the majority of astronauts come from the Navy and Air Force with about equal representation throughout the years. The Marine Corps, Army, and Coast Guard are represented in order of highest to lowest respectively with creating astronauts either currently in the program or previously.

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 requirements have changed throughout the years and so have NASA's goals and missions. Future missions to other planets will require more skills than just pilots and engineers. Astronauts with experience in medical, biological / horticultural, computer science, and more will be required for successful missions of the future. Today, to be considered for an astronaut position, U.S. citizens must meet the following qualifications: (astronaut requirements)

1.   A bachelor's degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics.

2.   At least three years of related professional experience obtained after degree completion OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft.

3.   The ability to pass the NASA long-duration astronaut physical. Distant and near visual acuity must be correctable to 20/20 for each eye. The use of glasses is acceptable.

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 advanced degrees in engineering, biology, medical, physical science, and mathematics are preferred, the minimum academic requirement is a bachelor degree.

NASA seeks brave Americans with experience and a level of expertise to perform in highly stressful situations and environments. 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. Though most pilots are from the military, that is not a requirement to become an astronaut anymore.

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. In fact, there have also been special operations members of the Navy SEAL community represented as NASA mission specialists - William Shepard, Chris Cassidy, and Jonny Kim are the current Navy SEALs still part of the program.

Fun FACT: The United States Naval Academy has produced the most astronauts than any other institution.