The path to becoming an astronaut today differs from what it took during the genesis of the United States space program. Most of the early pioneers were jet pilots in the military before being selected into the astronaut program. In a Mercury capsule, Alan B. Shepard, the first American in space on May 5, 1961, graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He became a naval aviator in 1946, then a test pilot in 1950. The third American in space in 1962, John H. Glenn, was a distinguished U.S. Marine Corps aviator who saw action in World War II, China, and Korea. He, too, became a Navy test pilot in July 1954.
One of the most famous astronauts, Neil A. Armstrong, who was the first to walk on the moon, graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering in 1955. Before his college years, Armstrong became a qualified naval aviator on August 16, 1950. Subsequently, he flew 78 missions during the Korean War, and in August 1952, the Navy released him from active duty; however, Armstrong remained in the reserves.
A catastrophic event occurred on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger spacecraft exploded 73 seconds into the flight, killing all seven crew members. The crew ranged from a school teacher from New Hampshire, Christa McAuliffe (the first civilian into space), to Ronald McNair, the first African-American astronaut. Dr. McNair had a Doctor of Philosophy in Physics from MIT. Other notable personnel on the doomed flight were Judith Resnik (Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering), Michael J. Smith, pilot and Vietnam veteran, and Gregory Jarvis, former engineer at Hughes Aircraft.
The examples above illustrate the variety of backgrounds in experience and education that made one’s selection possible – no astrophysics degree was necessary. Initially, test pilots were at the top of the list as potential astronauts. Also, you had to be less than 5 feet 11 inches to fit into the claustrophobic capsules of the 1960s. Currently, NASA states the astronaut requirements as:
- Be a U.S. citizen
- At least two years of professional experience related to your degree or a minimum of 1,000 hours of jet aircraft flight-time
- Pass the stringent NASA long-duration flight physical
- Hold a master’s degree in a STEM field: engineering, computer science, biological science, mathematics, or a physical science
Instead of the master’s degree requirement, you must have 36 semester hours toward a doctoral program in science, technology, engineering, or math. You may also have earned a Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. The third possible way to forgo a master’s is to complete a nationally recognized test pilot school program. One avenue for the latter is The National Test Pilot School (NTPS) in California, which, since 1981, meets the flight test requirements of U.S. and international aerospace programs.
The NTPS also offers a Master of Science in Flight Test Engineering (MSFTE) and a Flight Test and Evaluation (MSFT&E) for students with an undergraduate degree in engineering. The Engineering Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has accredited these two graduate degrees.
Indeed, a master’s degree in astrophysics would meet the STEM requirement. Another sobering fact is that in 2013, 6,000 applied to become astronauts and eight received acceptance. In 2017, 18,300 applied – 11 were accepted.
As of 2020, Loral O’Hara was one of thirteen selected and graduated on January 20, 2020, from the Artemis program. Loral always had a keen interest in STEM, using her undergraduate degree to work as a project engineer at Rocketplane Limited in Oklahoma City in 2007. She later earned a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics while contributing to improvements on the human-occupied submarine, Alvin, from 2009-2013. By 2013, she received her Naval Certification and proceeded to perform research at Woods Hole Oceanographic. Loral seems to fit all the qualifications of having a master’s degree and work experience in an engineering field before being chosen as an astronaut.
Therefore, a master’s degree in astrophysics degree would provide an excellent path to meet the astronaut qualification criteria; however, it’s not the only degree for eligibility. But you can start long before contemplating college, for example, by participating in HASSE or Houston Association for Space and Science Education. More than 13,000 students from more than 20 countries have attended HASSE programs, in which they experienced simulated space missions. Students benefit from instruction from NASA engineers, scientists, former astronauts, and college professors.
Foremost, future candidates for astronaut programs need a passion for STEM or related fields. One could present the case that soon, commercial space travel will be available. So who needs a master’s degree? If you’re fortunate enough to be a billionaire, like Sir Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos, then you can fund your own space travel. However, on Mr. Branson’s flight of July 11, 2021, his spacecraft, the VSS Unity, had two pilots. Branson was a passenger as the craft reached an altitude of 53.5 miles. Which do you prefer: being a passenger or being the commander?