Could you boldly go?

Emma Woollacott
34030.TIF Astronaut © 1996 PhotoDisc, Inc. All rights reserved. Images provided by © 1996 STOCKTREK. PhotoDisc Inc: 1.800.
34030.TIF Astronaut © 1996 PhotoDisc, Inc. All rights reserved. Images provided by © 1996 STOCKTREK. PhotoDisc Inc: 1.800.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When the BBC asked 14,000 children about their ambitions back in 1969, many mentioned becoming an astronaut - and many more reckoned they'd at least be able to holiday on the moon.

However a recent survey showed that only 1% of today's children harbour the same career ambition, the same number as want to be politicians or work in retail.

The irony is, though, that a job in the space industry is becoming easier than ever to attain. While the US may have abandoned its shuttle fleet in favour of hitching rides to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz rockets, a new breed of entrepreneurs is eyeing up the possibilities of space - and they'll need staff.

Most famously, non-profit organisation Mars One has announced plans for a one-way trip to the Red Planet by a group of around 40 colonists. Funding plans include a reality show, and mission applicants have had to pay a fee.

Both things should ring an alarm bell - and so should the mission as a whole. Critics say that the project's proposed $6 billion budget is woefully small. Worse, an analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has shown that the proposed environmental system would inevitably lead to loss of pressure, killing all the colonists within 68 days.

Unless you have joint citizenship with another space-faring nation, your only real way to become an astronaut right now is to apply through the European Space Agency (ESA).

The bad news is that they don't hire very often. The agency recruited for astronauts in 1978-1979, in 1991-1992 and in 2008- 2009, and has no plans for another hiring spree any time soon.

But you'll need time to prepare. ESA generally only selects people with an extremely strong scientific background - a PhD in physics, biology, chemistry, engineering, IT or maths - or else with flying experience, having logged at least 1,000 hours in high performance aircraft such as fighter jets.

"Astronaut is not a first career - it is a second career. They highly consider your ability to succeed in that second career based upon your success in that first career. You need to show that you are one of the best at what you do," says Robert Frost, who has spent ten years training astronauts for NASA and other agencies.

"So, decide what that first career will be and focus on studying for that. People from a wide variety of experiences are selected, but based on history, your odds are highest if you are a high performance jet pilot, an engineer, both, or a medical doctor."

You'll also need to be in excellent physical condition - and the right size to fit the agency's space suits. Fluency in English is essential but another language, especially Russian, will be an advantage. You'll need to pass a battery of psychological tests and, says ESA (really!) "be prepared to travel long distances".

But there are plenty of other jobs in the space industry for those with less itchy feet. Every autumn, ESA recruits for a year-long Young Graduate Trainee (YGT) programme. The work gives successful applicants the chance to gain valuable experience in the development and operation of space missions, but doesn't guarantee a job.

About 80% of ESA's actual vacancies require a technical or scientific background. ESA says the most frequently hired academic disciplines include aerospace, electrical, mechanical and software engineering, as well as astrophysics, astronomy, physics and maths - usually to a master's degree level.

And the commercial space industry is expected to grow strongly over the next few years. Orbital Sciences and IntelSat launch unmanned rockets; Virgin Galactic is promising low-orbit passenger trips; Bigelow Aerospace is working on developing hotels on the moon; and SpaceX is working towards putting a human on Mars. All are currently recruiting.

Here, jobs that involve actually going into space will be non-existent for the next few years; and, even then, they'll be few and far-between, as many missions will be unmanned.

However, for ground-based jobs, these companies are looking for the same range of scientific and aerospace experience as ESA - and for a lot of other skills as well. Private companies, to a much greater extent than a government agency, need everybody from accountants to caterers, HR staff to PR experts.

"When applying, you'll want to highlight any past experience that makes you exceptional in your field, whatever that field may be. It's a question you'll likely get from the recruiting team if you progress to the interview stage," says Lars Schmidt, who has worked on recruitment for SpaceX.

"One item that should be emphasised is that they do not require specific aerospace experience for many of their roles. Some roles may call for that, but many roles across the organisation hire from a variety of industries."

How Much Will It Cost to Tour Space?
How Much Will It Cost to Tour Space?

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