Responsibilities of an Astronaut

Astronauts work aboard the International Space Station in a variety of roles.

Astronauts work aboard the International Space Station in a variety of roles.

“Space: The final frontier.” We may be light years away from the exploration performed by Jean Luc Picard and his crew on the fictional television show "Star Trek: The Next Generation." But, we’ve also made huge strides since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And our astronomy discoveries are not without the help of talented, brave astronauts. Competition is fierce for these positions. According to an article from Wired UK, since 1959, only 330 people have been selected for the Astronaut Candidate training program. As NASA’s space shuttle program fades in 2012, astronauts mainly work aboard the International Space Station.

Commander Astronaut

The Commander is a specific duty of a pilot astronaut; he or she can serve as commander and pilot of either a shuttle or space station. As the leader of the crew, this astronaut is responsible for the overall success of the mission, which includes overseeing the vehicle, its crew and safety of the flight.

Pilot Astronaut

The pilot, or pilot astronaut, serves as an assistant to the commander and shares in the responsibility of operating the vehicle. The pilot also may help deploy satellites, retrieve satellites and assist with on-board experiments.

Mission Specialists

The shuttle or space station crew is led by a commander and pilot, and rounded out by mission specialists. These specialists maintain food and supplies, arranging crew activities and conducting experiments, or assist with payload operations. Mission specialists may also perform space walks, take part in extra-vehicular activities, and support or operate robotic equipment.

Between Missions

Astronauts aren’t always in space. During time between missions, or for those who have yet to go on a mission in space, there are many tasks and responsibilities to keep them busy. Some may be assigned to CAPCOM, the professionals who communicate with the astronauts currently in space. Others serve as astronaut support personnel, a group of astronauts that help those headed into space prepare for launch. Finally, some astronauts help NASA scientists design and text experiments.

Payload Specialists

Sometimes a non-astronaut accompanies the crew on a space mission; these roles are called "payload specialists." Payload specialists usually have a specialized skill set that applies to an experiment being conducted on the mission.

About the Author

Since 2000 Donna T. Beerman has contributed to newspapers and magazines. Her expertise includes higher education, marketing and social media, and her presentations and writing have won industry awards. She has an MFA in creative writing, is the integrated marketing manager at a Pennsylvania college and founded "Hippocampus Magazine."

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