Ask a group of children what they want to be when they grow up, and at least one or two will say, “astronaut!” And with the emergence of private space travel companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, more and more children are likely to be inspired by this exciting new phase of space travel.
But becoming an astronaut is hard work. In fact, it's incredibly hard work. Retired astronaut Clay Anderson failed in his first 15 attempts before finally making it through the rigorous selection process. Out of thousands of applicants, only a handful make it out of the atmosphere. But no matter how hard something is, starting off in the right direction is essential.
Here are five academic subjects that can launch your career in space travel.
Electrical engineering students learn how to build, understand, and repair electronics and electrical systems. And given that space shuttles rely on this technology, opting for an undergraduate course in electrical engineering is an excellent place to start your quest to become an astronaut.
Engineers make up a large proportion of astronauts and for very good reasons. Engineers are designers, innovators, and, most importantly, problem solvers. They trained to find practical solutions to real life issues. And when you're circling through space at 17,500 miles per hour, you'll definitely want a few of these guys on your team.
One person with the right stuff was Buzz Aldrin. Famous for being one of the first men to work on the moon, Aldrin also had a graduate degree in engineering. After returning from the first walk on the Moon, Aldrin noticed a broken switch on the lunar lander - unless it was fixed, the crew weren't going anywhere. Then, in a moment of inspiration, Aldrin realized he could jam a non-conductive felt-tip pen into the broken switch to push the contacts together and get them home.
Space travel is always at the cutting edge of technology and innovation, and astronauts play a vital part in testing, evaluating and improving the systems they work with. Although you will learn plenty during your undergraduate studies, it's unlikely to be enough time to build up the knowledge and expertise needed to become an astronaut. Most astronauts have a master's degree, and a PhD will significantly improve your chances of reaching the stars.
A degree in astrophysics is an ideal starting point for would-be astronauts. Astrophysics is a broad subject that combines physics, chemistry, math, and cosmology. It also asks some of the biggest questions of all. According to the NASA website, astrophysics aims to discover "how the universe works, and explore how it began and evolved."
Astrophysics is a complex field of study. Top students must be capable of a high-level of abstract reasoning and need the ability to grasp advanced mathematical and scientific concepts, including quantum mechanics, field theory, and vector calculus. Paul Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and the chief scientist at COSI science center. He writes, "It turns out that nature does not reveal its secrets willingly or easily. It takes countless hours of work by armies of dedicated professionals to understand the deepest workings of our cosmos. [It is] full of complicated theories, mountains of data to painstakingly analyze, and whiteboards full of tedious calculations."
But isn't all about your hard skills. Astrophysicists are trying to unravel some of the greatest mysteries ever known. As such, the best practitioners are naturally curious people who are willing to explore every possible option, as well as coming up with a few that have never been considered before. Blackholes, string theory, and the fabric of space/time were all founded upon mathematical principles, but they could only be truly conceptualized through the human imagination.
Again, an undergraduate degree is only the starting point for most astrophysicists. After that comes graduate school, which can take up to eight years - when that's done, you will be ready to start your doctorate.
Biochemistry is the study of chemical changes as they relate to living organisms. Its research is primarily lab-based and uses a combination of chemistry and biology to gain a better understanding of how cells communicate and develop. Biochemistry also explores how different environments and pressures affect the human body, making it a valuable field of study for aspiring astronauts.
Peggy Whitson is a famous American astronaut with a PhD in biochemistry. During her work at the Johnson Space Center, Whitson focused on the formation of kidney stones during space travel. She discovered that astronauts are more likely to develop kidney stones in space due to excess calcium and phosphate present in the urine, which is caused by the microgravity bone demineralization process. She then developed a potassium citrate therapy which is still used today.
One of the most critical issues for the wellbeing of astronauts is their nutritional requirements. Weightlessness disrupts many physiological processes including absorption, metabolism, and excretion. For example, astronauts don't need as much iron in their diet. The reduced need for iron is a result of the decreased production of blood cells. In fact, consuming too much iron could build up toxicity, leading to headaches, weight loss, nausea, and breathing difficulties. This is just one small example of biochemists are constantly evaluating physiological changes and adapting accordingly.
We're also nearing an exciting new era of space travel -- space tourism. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has already received about $80m in deposits from future astronauts. And with rivals like SpaceX and Blue Origin hot on their heels, it won't be too long before more people are going into orbit than ever before. The increasing number of space tourists will make biochemistry even more critical: “the more we put people into space, the more biological concerns we will have.”
A large number of astronauts began their career as commercial or military pilots. At one point, fighter pilot experience was an essential requirement for any potential astronaut and having served is still a big plus for applicants. However, even if you have no practical flight experience, understanding the science of air travel is an excellent stepping stone towards becoming an astronaut.
Students start by learning the fundamentals of flight science, including aerodynamics, propulsion theory, and materials and structures. From there, they will learn how to design, build, and test the next generations of aircraft.
Students will require a working understanding of physics and mathematics, and the need for those with a computer programming background is always increasing.
Students must be prepared to make a long-term commitment to their learning. Aerospace aeronautics is continually pushing the boundaries of what is possible, meaning it selects for the most dedicated and talented graduates. Nearly three-quarters of astronauts have a master's degree, the majority of which in aerospace engineering.
Geology is concerned with the physical structure and substance of the earth and the processes which have shaped its development. It’s also concerned with the study of other terrestrial planets and natural satellites, such as moons and asteroids.
One of the most famous geologists is Harrison Schmitt, one of only twelve people to have walked on the moon. Schmitt was part of the 1972 Appollo 17 mission. During one moonwalk, Schmitt collected a sample of moon rock which became known as Troctolite 76535. Weighing less than 156 grams and only 5cm in length, this small rock is considered to be the most interesting sample returned from the Moon. Geologists used it for thermochronological calculations which revealed much about the history of the Moon, including one theory that it once had an active magnetic field.
Geologists are also a crucial part of the Mars Exploration Program and its attempts to account for the differences and similarities between the red planet and our own. This includes the study of volcanoes, tectonics, cratering, and the massive storms that have shaped the planet's terrain.
IN 2016, SpaceX announced its vision to begin the colonization of Mars. Twelve months earlier, NASA reaffirmed its goal of sending humans to Mars by the year 2030. It is hard to tell who will get there first, but whatever team finally lands will definitely contain a few geology experts.
In 2017, NASA accepted just 12 people from more than 18,353 applicants, which makes the acceptance rate 0.065 percent -- less than one in 1,500. So while the right academic qualifications are essential, what else do you need to become an astronaut?
Firstly, there are some physical requirements. These are 20/20 vision (either naturally or with corrective lenses); blood pressure not more than 140/90 in a sitting position; and a height of between 62 and 75 inches.
You will need to be in excellent physical and psychological shape. Most importantly, you will require a unique set of character traits that separate you from all the other smart and ambitious applicants. The qualities that NASA looks for include flexibility, focus, group work skills, a love of learning, and the ability to make the right decisions under extreme pressure.
So it's tough to become an astronaut. But the good news is that there are several fascinating subjects you can study which can help you, quite literally, reach for the stars!