Ask the Astronaut: Can only pilots apply to be astronauts?

T38 trainers.jpg
The T-38 is as cool-looking as it is valuable for crew training.

Q: Should I become a military or civilian pilot to become an astronaut?

No, you certainly don’t need to become a military test pilot like most of NASA’s Space Race astronauts of the 1960s. The agency’s astronaut program seeks not only test pilots, but also scientists and engineers. 

 But NASA believes that flying experience builds decision-making and judgment skills that greatly improve your odds of being successful and surviving in space. That’s why NASA gives its astronaut candidates without piloting experience six weeks of flight training (currently with the Navy). They then go on to qualify  as crewmembers on NASA’s fleet of Northrop T-38N Talons. These are high-speed, high-altitude jet trainers with advanced electronics and navigation gear capable of aerobatics and near-supersonic speeds. Flying the T-38 regularly gives astronauts important experience in judgment and decision-making under pressure.  If you choose to pursue a private pilot’s license on your own, you’ll find flying to be challenging, rewarding, and fun--and you’ll be ahead of the curve in preparing to work in space.

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Ask the Astronaut: A Galaxy of Astonishing Answers to Your Questions on Spaceflight