Astronauts are trained to travel and work in space. Currently, the main focus of human space activities is the International Space Station. Astronauts fly and dock space vehicles at the station and carry out scientific research and technical activities onboard.
Tasks include carrying out scientific experiments or installing, maintaining and repairing the space station.
There are three main types of astronaut:
Mission specialists, whose main duty is to carry out technical tasks or scientific research onboard the spacecraft.
Flight engineers, who carry out technical tasks or scientific research onboard the space station
Pilots, who fly the space vehicles.
There are fewer pilots than mission specialists and flight engineers.
Scientific research in space includes:
All astronauts use hi-tech equipment in their work. This includes laboratory apparatus, as well as communications equipment and technical tools that are adapted for use in space.
As well as carrying out work tasks in space, several hours of an astronaut's day are spent using exercise machines to limit the effects of muscle and bone deterioration. Astronauts must also carry out daily chores, such as cleaning and maintaining the spacecraft.
When not on a space flight mission, astronauts carry out related work, give ground support to other astronauts' missions and prepare for future missions.
European astronauts are based at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, although they may be sent to Houston in Texas or Star City in Moscow, for extended training periods. In Cologne, they mostly work around 37 hours a week, Monday to Friday.
Astronauts might only experience a few space missions in their career. When on a mission, astronauts work to fixed schedules, and each day is planned in detail to allocate time for work, exercise, eating and sleeping.
On long space missions, astronauts work for about ten hours a day for five days and then have two days off. On short missions, they often work longer hours.
The work is physically and mentally demanding. Some work can also be physically exhausting, e.g. spacewalking. Astronauts must be able to carry out their work in a weightless environment, which affects the body. For example, they may experience disorientation and some loss of bone and muscle tissue although, with proper physical training, the effect is minimal.
The starting salary for European astronauts may be around £46,000 a year. An experienced astronaut may earn around £54,000 a year.
The highest salary for an astronaut may be around £74,000 a year.
Additional allowances may be available, for example, for the education of astronauts' children.
The European Space Agency (ESA) selects and trains European astronauts for the European Astronaut Corps. The UK is a member of ESA and, therefore, UK nationals can apply for its astronaut programme when ESA is recruiting.
Traditionally, it has been difficult for UK candidates to be successful in recruitment programmes, as recruitment is linked to funding and the UK only funds unmanned space missions at present.
Entry to the training programme is lengthy and extremely competitive.
Until recently, there were only eight European astronauts in the European Astronaut Corps. In May 2009, six new recruits were announced. Although opportunities to become an astronaut are very limited, the wider space industry supports 70,000 people and offers a range of jobs.
The Space Careers website lists job vacancies in the wider international aerospace industry, including those in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), although only US citizens can become astronauts with NASA.
To become an astronaut, candidates must normally have a degree at Masters level or, preferably, a doctorate in a natural science subject, medicine, engineering, information technology or mathematics. They should ideally also have at least three years' professional experience in a relevant field. Flying experience is useful.
The entry requirements for relevant degrees are a minimum of two A levels with at least five GCSE's (A*-C). A levels and GCSE's in science subjects are essential. Equivalent qualifications, such as a BTEC National Certificate/Diploma in science subjects or an International Baccalaureate, may be acceptable. Entry requirements vary and it is advisable to check with individual institutions for details. Those without the usual academic qualifications may be able to take an Access course. The Diploma in engineering may be relevant.
Applicants must be within accepted height and weight specifications and be mentally stable. Potential astronauts are given rigorous medical and physical tests. Applicants must have a fluent command of English and knowledge of Russian is also an advantage.
Recent graduates can gain experience of ESA through its one-year Young Graduate Trainee Programme, which prepares candidates for future employment in the space industry. These are paid positions and full details are available on the ESA website.
Space missions are a high-risk activity and are extremely expensive. Before undertaking any mission, astronauts have to undertake several years of intensive training.
The ESA training programme for International Space Station missions takes place partly at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany, with support from other sites around the world.
It is made up of three stages:
It takes about three and a half years to complete all stages of training.
Laboratory technicians carry out routine laboratory tests and perform a variety of technical support functions to help scientists, technologists and others with their work. They can work in research and development, scientific analysis and testing, education and manufacturing.
They are employed in a wide range of scientific fields which affect almost every aspect of our lives.
After a career in space flight, astronauts may enter senior management positions within space agencies or related organisations.
European Space Agency (ESA)
The Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and
Manufacturing Technologies (SEMTA), 14 Upton Road, Watford WD18 0JT
Tel: 01923 238441
UK Space Agency, UKspace,
Electron Building, Fermi Avenue,
Harwell, Oxford, Didcot,
Oxfordshire OX11 0QR
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