Astronauts Salary: Is The Paycheck Worth The Risk?
Last Updated: November 2, 2022
When considering dream jobs, astronauts is pretty high up there. Who wouldn’t want to fly spaceships, live in space, and be at the forefront of space science?
But being an astronaut requires years of education, experience, and training as well as potentially hazardous working conditions since space travel is not without risks. And let’s be honest. We need to ask how much we will be compensated for our education, experience, training, and risk on the job. We have to put food on the table, pay for housing, etc.
So, how much does an astronaut get paid?
NASA Astronauts Requirements
Whenever you’re looking at a job description, you have to look at the job requirements. The salary means nothing if you don’t qualify for the requirements. It’s also generally expected that higher requirements in education, experience, and training normally offer higher salaries to get the top candidates they want.
Building on our previous article discussing how astronauts train for the microgravity environment of space, what are the requirements for an astronaut?
NASA’s current requirements for astronaut applications are:
- United States citizenship
- Master’s degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields
- A minimum of two years of relevant professional experience or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft
- Pass the NASA long-duration astronaut physical
Other space agencies’ astronaut requirements are similar. But again, simply hitting those requirements is not enough. The application selection process for astronauts is extremely competitive since it’s an attractive job (even many people’s dream job) and they can only send the best and the brightest. Then those applicants have to complete both general and specialized training programs.
Astronauts need to be able to perform scientific experiments, operate systems in space, communicate effectively with mission control and crew members, and endure the physical and mental rigors of space travel.
The requirements to become an astronaut are extremely rigorous. Does their salary match the difficulty of their profession? Image Credit: NASA.
Average NASA Astronaut Salaries
We will start with how NASA compensates its astronauts since it currently contributes the majority of astronauts in space. NASA is a government agency and therefore its employees are paid based on the General Schedule (GS) rates as a base. Just like any other job, factors such as additional education or experience can increase the rate an astronaut receives and this salary is subject to change over time as those factors increase.
Pay grades for civilian astronauts are GS-11 through GS-14 with GS-11 starting at $64,724 per year and GS-14 earning up to $141,715 annually. However, the GS rates often have specific local rates that may differ from this. Astronauts are trained in Houston, TX, where the localized rates are about 30% higher than the general tables due to the city’s cost of living and competitive nature of the metroplex. For instance, NASA’s 2020 call for candidates, listed a salary range of $104,898 to $161,141.
About 58% of NASA astronauts are military personnel who have a similar pay system, but not quite the same. Military astronaut salaries are set by the Department of Defense, based primarily on years of service and rank. Pay rates are usually lower than those of civilian astronauts, but they continue receiving the exclusive benefits of their branch of service which are not available to civilian astronauts such as military medical benefits and even housing allowances.
Again, these are base pay rates for entry-level astronauts and these rates increase over time depending on experience and position. Astronauts who go on to leadership roles may earn up to $300,000 per year.
In addition to that pay, astronauts also receive a number of other benefits including paid PTO, good medical benefits, and a pension.
Astronauts salary at other agencies and private companies
NASA isn’t the only agency sending people to space.
New Recruit Astronauts from the European Space Agency (ESA) are paid at the A2 scale, with the potential of earning up to A4 levels. These ranges are different based on the astronaut’s country of origin, detailed below:
- In France, this starts at €5,845.25 per month (€70,143 per annum) and goes up to €8,381.57 per month (€100,578 per annum)
- In the UK, this starts at £4,534.69 (£54,416 per annum) and goes up to £6,503.91 per month (£78,046 per annum)
- The US equivalent of this pay scale is $6,693.84 ($80,316 per annum) up to $9,596.82 ($115,161 per annum)
While this seems equal to our less than NASA rates, one thing to remember is that ESA salaries are exempt from national income tax in ESA Member States meaning they net that total as opposed to if they had to pay taxes on it as they do at NASA or in the private sector.
Russia’s pay scale for cosmonauts is a little more complicated, with a low base monthly salary, but high incentives and bonuses especially after years of service. ROSCOSMOS offers the following monthly salary scale converted to USD equivalent numbers:
- An astronaut candidate: $1,200 ($14,400/ year)
- A test astronaut: $1,300 ($15,600/ year)
- An instructor astronaut: $1,800 ($21,600/ year)
- PLUS incentives including:
- Monthly allowances of up to a quarter of the salary
- Additional payments for the length of service
- A monthly bonus of up to 120% after three or more flights
- A one-time monetary reward for each flight
A rather extreme example of how these incentives and bonuses could pay off is an experienced ISS astronaut salary of 12 thousand dollars a month.
In addition to the international space agencies, several of the world’s billionaires also have space programs now. For example, SpaceX’s starting salary range for an astronaut is $120,000 to $200,000 depending on experience level and other factors. Musk has even stated he would pay astronauts who go to Mars \$500,000. This competition has also likely provided pressure on NASA to provide competitive wages in recent years.
Is the pay worth it?
Now, the question becomes, is the pay worth it? This will depend on you. There are certainly risks in training and going to space. They may not be putting their lives at risk as much as say, members of our active-duty military who as we discussed in this article, are compensated the same or even less. But there are still risks to their job, big ones. Astronauts work on the leading edge of science and technology and if they were working for private companies in STEM fields, they would likely make more.
Overwhelmingly, astronauts will say they don’t do it for the money. For them, the opportunity to go to and work in space is too dear. They see it as a chance to fulfill their childhood dream and contribute to humanity’s progress in a positive way.
Would you risk doing a spacewalk for around 12,000 dollars per month?
Sarah Hoffschwelle is a freelance writer who covers a combination of topics including astronomy, general science and STEM, self-development, art, and societal commentary. In the past, Sarah worked in educational nonprofits providing free-choice learning experiences for audiences ages 2-99. As a lifelong space nerd, she loves sharing the universe with others through her words. She currently writes on Medium at https://medium.com/@sarah-marie and authors self-help and children’s books.
Even people who go into space on a high-tech spacecraft after years of preparation need to go to the bathroom! Let’s find out how they do it!