An Astronaut’s Guide to Applying to Be An Astronaut

NASA astronaut Anne McClain is assisted out of the Soyuz MS-11 that returned her and crewmates Oleg Kononenko of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency back to Earth on June 24, 2019, landing in a remote area near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, after 204 days aboard the International Space Station. (Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

By Anne McClain
NASA Astronaut

About every four years, NASA accepts applications for a new class of astronauts. We in the astronaut office are thrilled and excited it is that time again! As someone who just went through this process a short seven years ago, I know how stressful it can be. It is hard to want something so badly for your whole life, to have a dream so magical that it has kept you up at night, then try to contain all that excitement while concisely describing your experiences and skills for complete strangers via an application form. So I wanted to share some thoughts for all those who find themselves in that position.

It is totally worth it! For my whole life, I have wanted this job. I first told my parents that I wanted to be an astronaut when I was three years old. The goal shaped many decisions and sacrifices I made growing up and in adulthood. Thirty-six years after I first told my parents my dream, I got my shot to fly in space. And it was more amazing than I could have ever imagined! I spent six-and-a-half months living on the International Space Station, doing science and maintenance, spacewalks and robotics. I have been home for nine months now, and I will tell you this: I have never wanted to go to space more than I do right now. Everything we achieved during my first stay in space was just a short introduction to how much more there is to explore!

The reality is we astronauts spend a lot more time on Earth than we do in space. Luckily, training for space and supporting those currently in space is the second best job I can imagine. No two days are alike in this job. We participate in flight simulations, test and evaluate new equipment to prepare for new missions to the Moon, sit in Mission Control and talk to the crew on orbit, fly jets, and practice spacewalks under water. Most of this is based out of the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, but some travel is required. We work all over the world with people of all different cultures and nationalities. And yes, some days we sit in meeting after meeting or draft up policy memos. It cannot all be glamorous.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Roscosmos astronaut Oleg Kononenko and Candian Space Agency astronaut David Saint Jacques in the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

But every now and then (currently about once every five to seven years), we wake up, and it is launch day. It is hard to describe what it is like to walk to a rocket knowing you are about to blast off of planet, knowing that by the time you go to bed, you will be floating. There really is nothing like the first moments of weightlessness, watching your pencil float in front of you while looking back at the curvature of the Earth and knowing your dream has come true. 

What should applicants think seriously about before applying?

First, if you are qualified to apply to be an astronaut, you likely already are a successful professional. You may be at the top of your field, or you may have just gotten another dream job that you love. You are contributing, you are trusted, and you know what you are doing. You are probably a leader. Once you are selected though, you will join a diverse group of people and start work in a very unfamiliar environment – essentially, starting over. You will be asked to do things you have never done before, and you may even not be very good at some of them at first. As such, it is really important to be adaptable. We know you are good at what you do, but your success will be based on how well you can adapt.

NASA astronauts Nick Hague (top) and Anne McClain work to swap batteries in the Port-4 truss structure during today’s spacewalk. (Credit: NASA)

Some periods of time you can be away from home for up to 50% of the time, and other times you may only be gone one or two nights every couple months. Make sure your family and friends are on board with your dream. You will need a strong ground support network because you will lean on them a lot for support! But don’t worry – we will be here for you also. In the astronaut office, we don’t just do our jobs together – we (and our families) do life together. As such, it is important that we can trust others and that we are trustworthy.

2013 class of NASA astronauts. Pictured from the left (front row) are Anne C. McClain, Tyler N. (Nick) Hague and Nicole Aunapu Mann. Pictured from the left (back row) are Jessica U. Meir, Josh A. Cassada, Victor J. Glover, Andrew R. (Drew) Morgan and Christina M. Hammock.Credits: NASA

It is really hard to get selected as an astronaut. The 2013 class had more than 6,000 applicants and eight were selected. In 2017, more than 18,300 people applied, and 11 new astronauts just graduated from that class. The odds are in no one’s favor! When I came to interview, a senior astronaut told me, “Just because you would be perfect here does not mean you will be selected.” It made me realize a lot of really qualified people don’t get selected. But 100% of people who do not apply will not be selected. You need to apply. And if you are not selected, apply again (and again, and again). It took most of us a few times – you need to be tenacious.

Expedition 58 Flight Engineers Anne McClain of NASA and David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency pose for a portrait inside the U.S. Destiny laboratory module. (Credit: NASA)

What you have done is as important as how you communicate it. Make sure your resume looks good. In this job, we trust each other with our lives – we need to know that you are detail oriented. Your resume is our first impression of this. Take the time to make it error-free, concise, and clear. Remember people with different backgrounds than you will review your resume, so don’t use acronyms or a lot of really technical terms. Just tell us what you have done, and some things you learned along the way. Include everything – we look at both breadth and depth of experiences. And yes, we want to hear about your hobbies too!

One word of caution though: I have met some applicants who did everything they could just to build up their resume, and I do not recommend this! Don’t do things so you can put them on a resume, do things because you have a passion for them. Fly because you love to fly, or scuba dive because you love to scuba dive, or go winter over in Antarctica because you love to be in remote places working on teams. If you do all these things just to be selected then are not selected, it can be very disappointing. But if you do what you love, you will not only perform better, but you will be happier too.

The funny thing that my whole class had in common is we were genuinely surprised when we were selected. We were very happy to be selected, but we were also very happy doing what we were already doing.To sum it up: do what you love doing because you love doing it. Be adaptable, trustworthy, tenacious, and detail oriented. Understand this job requires sacrifice by both you and your family. And most of all, go for it. Submit your application. It is SO worth it!