The common view of astronauts as intrepid pioneers guiding spacecraft beyond the Earth’s atmosphere still holds true. But they are also practical scientists and technicians who perform research, repair satellites and launch scientific instruments. Their ventures into space are both exhilarating and risky, and they are rewarded with high salaries.
Astronauts who command or pilot spacecraft need at least 1,000 hours of command time as pilots in jet aircraft. Test flight experience is preferable. They also need a minimum bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological or physical science, or math. Many astronaut candidates get these requirements while serving as officers in the U.S. Armed Forces. They continue to fulfill their military duties and earn their standard pay but are stationed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Salaries differ by rank and years of service, although amounts for each pay grade are the same across all services. For example, a captain in the Air Force or Navy has a pay grade of O-3. As of January 2013, monthly salaries for the rank range from $3,835 for under two years of service to a maximum of $6,240 for 14 or more years. In the Marines or Army, the highest O-10 pay grade belongs to generals. Their monthly pay starts at $15,913 for 20 years of service and reaches a maximum of $19,566 for 38 or more years.
Civilians typically join space flight crews as specialists who manage experiments, payload operations and crew activities. They need at least a bachelor’s degree in the same subjects as pilots and at least three years of related professional experience. Civilians earn basic pay through the General Schedule table used for all government employees. It divides compensation into 15 grades based on qualifications. Within each grade are 10 steps representing salary increases. As of January 2012, civilian astronauts earn at the GS-12 level, which ranges from $60,274 to $78,355 per year, or at GS-13, which ranges from $71,674 to $93,175.
Astronauts, in theory, work anywhere in the country. Because each location has a different cost of living, the General Schedule accounts for those differences by introducing locality pay. This represents a percentage increase over the base pay. In practice, civilian astronauts work out of Houston, Texas, which has locality pay of 28.71 percent. This increases the GS-12 pay to a range of $77,579 to $100,851 per year, and the GS-13 to an annual range of $92,252 to $119,926.
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