As of January 2018, 37 countries have seen their people fly to space and over 530 individuals have reached Earth’s orbit. 83% of all astronauts originated from only two countries (the United States and Russia) and 94% of all travellers originated from only eight countries: the United States (61%), Russia and the Soviet Union (22%), Japan / Germany / China / France / Canada (2%). A very select group of men (24) were fortunate to travel beyond Earth’s orbit to the Moon, of which twelve of them stepped foot on the lunar surface.
To date, only 60 women have travelled to space, which is approximately 12% of all astronauts. None of the astronauts who travelled beyond Earth’s orbit and travelled to the Moon were women. During the time of astronaut selection for the NASA Apollo Moon missions, women’s rights were not as widely recognized as they are today. This trend is slowly, but surely changing. For example, NASA’s class of astronaut candidates selected in 2013 was comprised of 50% women for the very first time.
You do not have to be an astronaut for your country’s space agency to go into space. Space tourists are not career astronauts for their respective country’s space agency, but instead pay for the cost of travelling on a space flight. Those who can afford to travel to space in this manner will still be subjected to psychological and medical standards but they are less stringent because of their short flight time. Self-funded space tourists that have already travelled to space include Guy Liberté, Denis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth and Gregory Olsen. The costs of travelling to the space station as a tourist have ranged from $20 to 40 million USD.
If you do not have this kind of money, to become a career astronaut you need to go through a series of selection rounds. Government space agencies are looking for well-rounded individuals who must have a variety of necessary competences, skills, and characteristics for space flight. While most astronauts hold an engineering or flight background, this is not necessary to be selected. A variety of other qualified backgrounds have proven valuable in selection, including computer, biological and physical sciences, medicine and mathematics. Candidates are expected to have some serious technical knowledge, including engineering and science. There are some important personality traits you’d need to display too, like leadership, teamwork, decision-making, problem solving, communication, conscientiousness and cultural understanding. Each agency has their own standards as to how they pick the successful candidates, but the selection typically includes questionnaires and interviews in addition to psychological, medical and fitness evaluations. To check whether you’re fit enough to be an astronaut, you would have to pass the following physical tests: posture check-up, handgrip strength, flexibility, core and muscular strength, aerobic endurance, balance and general anthropometric traits (such as height, weight and body fat). Cognitive tests assess the individual’s performance in different areas, such as attention, memory, multi- tasking, workload management, mental arithmetic and spatial awareness. This gruelling process is to ensure that only those who are fully capable of performing the required duties in space during everyday and emergency situations are selected.
Fluent English in speech and writing is a must because it is the official language of the International Space Station. Russian is considered a strong asset too, as it is the station’s second official language. Generally, applicants need a minimum of a relevant master’s degree and are ideally between 27 and 37 years of age. Some agencies also specify height requirements. For example, the European Space Agency specifies a height range of 5 feet (153cm) to 6 feet 2 inches (190cm).
Finally, there is a series of medical tests to go through to ensure the selected person will not compromise the space flight because of a medical condition. Although the most common causes for rejection are cardiovascular and vision conditions, there’s an entire list that could potentially end one’s dream of becoming an astronaut. Medical grounds for rejecting a candidate include cardiac arrhythmias, colour blindness, thyroid conditions, kidney stones, reduced visual acuity (must be 20/20), digestive issues, neurological conditions, hypertension, and increased calcium levels. You also need to be free from any dependency to alcohol or drugs.
When NASA selected its first crew of seven astronauts in 1959, their qualifications were even more specific. Applicants required jet aircraft flight experience, engineering training and a height measurement below 5 feet 11 inches. The height restriction was due to the limitations of the Mercury spacecraft that was being used at the time. Of the only 500 applicants, the chosen 7 astronauts were all men, each from military backgrounds (including Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Army). Today, recruitment is significantly more competitive worldwide. In NASA’s most recent recruitment for the class of 2017, over 18,300 applications were received; an incredible number and 200% increase on the previous record of 8,000 applicants in 1978. Similarly in Canada in 2016, 3,772 applications were completed from across the country for the Canadian Space Agency’s fourth recruitment campaign. An encouraging proportion of 24% of these were from women. This was eventually narrowed down to two astronaut candidates. In Europe, the ESA’s 2008 recruitment campaign saw over 8,400 completed applications (16% were from women).