How to plan your career in the space industry

At one time or another, all of us, male and female alike, have dreamt of becoming an astronaut. Flying through space at what seems like a million miles an hour, leaving the problems of planet earth behind sounds like paradise. Of course, when you return, you'll most likely get a medal from the president, be on the Wheaties box, and your hometown will have a parade in your honor. Well, before you plan what you'll say during your White House dinner, it is important to take a look at the reality of becoming an astronaut and what it takes. As the folks at NASA say, it surely takes 'the right stuff'.

In the United States, NASA employs thousands of people in a variety of positions in addition to the actual space programs, such as accountants, clerical people, and so forth. Regarding actually becoming an astronaut, however, is quite a challenge. NASA statistics show that since the beginning of the agency in 1959, only 321 astronauts have been selected to date, and today, there are about 150 actively on duty astronauts. Most of these people have been from a military background, but exceptionally qualified teachers, scientists and others have made their way into the astronaut program. Of course, not every astronaut earns the right to fly in an actual space mission, either. Beyond the rigorous intelligence, health and fitness requirements to become an astronaut in the first place, many fall short of the full requirements for space missions once in the program. While some of the qualifications are classified, suffice it to say that they are very tough, as they well should be. Additionally, some who become astronauts are best qualified for management positions, and therefore, stand a slim chance of an actual space mission.

Due to the tragedies that have befallen the American space program over the past several decades, interest in becoming an astronaut has faded somewhat, but there are still far more NASA applicants than positions available, and those positions that are available, as we said before, are hard to come by for even the best candidates.

If you are chosen to become an astronaut, how much can you expect in regards to salary? NASA reports that the starting pay for an astronaut is between K and K annually. For the stress and risk involved, it is fair to say that no one is doing this to become wealthy, but fame and glory, as well as the honor of serving one's country, can be priceless.

For those who don't get into NASA, don't worry- there is a counterpart in Europe, namely the European Space Agency, or ESA. The ESA is a possibility for you if you are a national of one of these 'member nations' of the ESA together with Canada which is a cooperating country. Americans can't join, but the ESA is interesting to talk about anyhow.

The ESA has facilities in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands which operate the space programs for the member nations as we identified earlier. Today, there are only 13 highly qualified astronauts in the ESA. To put this into perspective, the last time recruitment was held for ESA astronauts, over 20,000 people applied, 5,000 were deemed to be qualified, and 2 were selected overall. These odds are, if you will excuse the pun, astronomical!

Health, intelligence and fitness requirements for the ESA are similar to NASA, and typically, the ESA only considers skilled pilots with at least 5,000 flying hours logged in before they apply. Given the population of Europe, the ESA is a difficult goal as well.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia formed a new space agency of its own- the RKA. Although details about the RKA are somewhat hard to come by, the RKA in general employs 5,000 people, with most of the work of the agency being handled by outside contractors. RKA has its roots in the former USSR space program, which competed heavily with NASA in the 1950's, launching the Sputnik rocket, putting the first dog, Leika, into space.

NASA soon followed with a chimpanzee going into space as an experimental mission prior to human space missions. One of the RKA's most impressive achievements has been the partnership with NASA on the MIR space station, which serves many important defense and scientific purposes as it travels through space. MIR is a manned (and woman-ed) space station, with the two nations sharing duties and costs. In this instance, a common interest in space exploration and experimentation brought together two formerly bitter rivals.

Other nations also have space programs, and therefore astronauts, but the information about the agencies is often top secret. Astronauts are usually approached to join these programs, rather than the other way around as it is with NASA and ESA. For example, there is information to indicate that China is embarking on a space program, and has collaborated with the RKA to exchange technology and information. Perhaps, astronauts work within both programs, though this is a rumor at best as it cannot be confirmed with any hard facts at this time. It is imaginable, however, that these agencies are, or seek to be, of the same caliber as NASA, ESA or RKA. The future will tell exactly what happens with these agencies that are so secretive today.

For those who don't make the cut as astronauts, there is talk of commuter travel into space in the near future. The main requirement for this will be a great deal of money and a lot of courage. Space flight, no matter what the movies depict, is a physical and mental challenge. It is a lot different than a video game or a ride at an amusement park.

In closing, for those who have 'the right stuff', a career as an astronaut can be an exciting adventure that is rewarding beyond belief and a chance to use your literally one in a million talents to serve your country, wherever that may be.