A few months ago, before I had even applied for a PhD, I was wondering what it took to become an astronaut. Was it something that all astronauts had in common; “The Right Stuff?” Or was it something else?
So I decided to analyse the profiles of current ESA astronauts and all NASA astronauts from their 2009 intake onwards to see if there was anything in common. The reason why I decided to only look at the more recent astronauts is because I wanted to see how I could follow in their footsteps and emulate to a certain degree their career flightpath.
There were four really interesting conclusions from this analysis.
1. The importance of STEM
All 32 astronauts in my sample had some sort of background in either Science, Technology, Engineering, or Medicine. This cannot be a coincidence. It is well known that graduates of STEM courses often do well, but for this particular role, it seems that you must be a STEM graduate to even be considered.
2. Engineering success
The previous point mentioned the importance of STEM, but within this broad area, most astronauts are Engineering graduates. Including both undergraduates and postgraduates, 62% of the sample had a background in Engineering. When you consider the engineering marvels that are responsible for making space travel a reality, it is no wonder that these graduates seem to be preferred.
3. Top Guns
More than half of astronauts analysed had a military flying background. It is true that in the early days of human spaceflight, military pilots were almost exclusively selected to become astronauts. However, it seems as if old habits die hard since the most common route to become an astronaut is still the one where you should first be a distinguished pilot with several thousand hours under your belt.
4. Not that kind of doctor
24% of astronauts in the sample have a PhD in a STEM related subject. In fact, one of the astronauts, Christer Fuglesang, was even a research fellow at CERN alongside lecturing at KTH in Stockholm. Many of the astronauts are incredibly high achieving academics.
“I don’t think anybody – astronauts or otherwise – is born with some kind of ‘right stuff.’ It’s something you work into.” – Buzz Aldrin
Looking back on these conclusions, they all seem to be fairly logical. Nothing is unexpected, but it does confirm what the commonalities are between astronauts and what anyone like me who is pursuing this profession needs to consider very early on in their lives. It takes many years of effort to even attain the educational aspects of becoming an astronaut.
Although I had considered it before, it was only after I had done this analysis that I decided to apply for a PhD to bring me closer to my ultimate goal.
If you are interested in the data I gathered for this analysis, you can download the Excel spreadsheet below. It makes use of information readily available on the two source websites for NASA and ESA given above in the article.
Data: Astronaut Profiles