It’s a cruel fact of the life of the astronomer and those in related disciplines that there’s more chance of being struck by lightning than of actually becoming an astronaut and travelling even remotely close to the stars and celestial marvels studied in the skies above.
But setting aside those little reveries when you gaze up at the night sky coming over all emotional and star struck, what does it really take to be a space man? A 2012 poll on LinkedIn ranked astronaut at no.5 on a list of dream jobs. So, should you have applied?
For one, most astronaut bios read like Tony Stark’s education and achievements! They almost always begin with a childhood obsession with all things celestial – watching the 1969 moon mission launch through their binoculars from their parents’ yard, decorating their bedroom ceiling with the constellations as seen through their astronomical telescopes, etc.
Canadian Astronaut, Jeremy Hansen, is a space newbie at age 36, having only joined the space programme in 2009 after a career flying fighter jets. He says there is no perfect recipe for what makes an astronaut, but nerves of steel and ‘operational skills’ are a must.
“You have to be able to learn, but you don’t have to be the smartest person in the world. We need to know that if we put you in a bad situation, you can handle the stress and pressure of it, and not freak out when things get tough. I flew fighter pilots but there are so many ways to get experience like that.”
Most astronauts have a speciality – communications, mechanical engineering, astrophysicist, biologist, etc. There are three typical categories that each astronaut falls into – payload specialist, mission specialist and pilot/commander.
Payload specialists are responsible for a highly tailored element of a mission. They’re often found outside typical astronaut channels, and are usually specialists in a field who are then trained for space travel in order to use their specialist skills in space. For example, Charles D.Walker was an American engineer who trained as an astronaut specifically to fly on three space missions in the late 1980s (he’d actually failed to gain entry to the ’78 astronaut school, so there’s always hope!)
The difference between a mission specialist and a payload specialist is that mission specialists are trained primarily as astronauts and secondly assigned a small field of operation on each mission. Most of the astronauts living on the International Space Station are mission specialists.
The commander/pilot is in charge of the mission. Depending on the size of the mission, there are numerous ranks and positions to be filled, e.g. pilot, command pilot, docking module pilot, etc. Pilots and commanders are responsible for the success of the mission and safety of the crew rather than a specific task like a payload specialist.
And here’s some great news for budding astronauts; as humankind looks to the stars and the first non-government space programmes quite literally get off the ground, the job prospects for those wanting a genuinely celestial career on the space end of their telescopes are only going to improve!
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