Library Index » Science Encyclopedia » Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - A New Agency Is Born, Peaceful Versus Military Purposes, Nasa Shoots For The Moon, Space Science Suffers

Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - Nasa's Workforce

astronauts astronaut shuttle selection

People employed by federal agencies (excluding the military) are called civil servants. As of 2006 NASA employed approximately 16,650 full-time civil servants. Another 40,000 people supported NASA projects by working under contracts or grants handed out by the agency. The vast majority of these people work at or near NASA facilities.

At the height of Apollo development NASA employed nearly 36,000 civil servants. By the early 1990s this number had dropped to 24,000 and continued to decrease over the next several years. NASA reduced its workforce by offering employees cash bonuses to retire early and through normal attrition (not replacing workers that leave). During most of the 1990s the agency operated under a hiring freeze. One consequence of this was that very few young people entered the NASA workforce during that period.

NASA divides its civil service workforce into four main categories:

  • Scientists and Engineers—Highly educated professionals that conduct aerospace research and development or perform biological, life science, or medical research or services. This category includes space scientists, biologists, aerospace engineers, physicians, nurses, and psychologists.
  • Technicians—Technicians fall into two categories. Some are specialists that provide services such as drafting or photographic development. Others are skilled at particular trades (such as mechanics or electrical work).
  • Professional Administrators—These employees operate non-technical functions such as management, legal affairs, public relations, and human resources.
  • Clerical Workers—This includes secretarial, administrative, and clerical positions.

People engaged in technical work comprise nearly 60% of the agency's workforce.

FIGURE 2.5 NASA Deep Space Network communications complexes "Map," in Basics of Space Flight: Chapter 18. Deep Space Network, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, February 2001, (accessed December 28, 2005)

According to NASA's Human Resources department the vast majority of the agency's workforce is at least forty years old, and the average NASA employee is forty-seven years old. Approximately two-thirds of the NASA employees are male. Most male employees work in science and engineering professions. The majority of the female employees work in professional administrative positions. More than 75% of NASA employees are white.

Most NASA workers have college degrees. More than a third of the workforce have advanced degrees beyond the bachelor level. The average salary for a NASA employee is about $95,000 per year. Scientists and engineers are the highest paid, averaging $105,000 per year, while clerical employees are the lowest paid, earning around $45,000 per year.

Contractors and Grantees

More than 40,000 people support NASA services under contracts and grant arrangements. NASA's major contractors are manufacturing companies in the aerospace industry. United Space Alliance is a joint venture between the Boeing and Lockheed Martin corporations. As of 2005 it performed day-to-day operations of the space shuttle program and employed more than 10,000 people. Most worked at JSC and KSC. The California Institute of Technology is another major contractor. It operates JPL and employs approximately 5,000 people.

NASA also funds research projects at private institutions, such as universities, and encourages commercial investment in space research. In 1985 the U.S. Congress amended the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act to direct NASA to "seek and encourage to the maximum extent possible the fullest commercial use of space." In response NASA developed a Space Partnership Development (SPD) Office, an industry-university-government collaboration. The SPD manages twelve Research Partnership Centers (RPCs) at universities and nonprofit institutions engaged in space research and product development. (See Figure 2.6.) Each dollar of NASA funding provided to an RPC must be matched by at least two dollars of non-NASA funding.

FIGURE 2.6 NASA's Innovative Partnerships Program network "NASA's IPP Network," in IPP Fiscal Year 2004, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2005, (accessed December 28, 2005)

In 2004 President George W. Bush urged NASA to expand its commercial partnerships to develop technology to support his new vision for the space agency for crewed missions to the Moon and Mars. NASA incorporated existing partnership arrangements into a new program called the Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP) under the direction of the Space Operations Mission Directorate. According to NASA the IPP worked with more than 150 partners (called external agents) during 2004 to develop technologies and products that will be useful to NASA and have commercial applications. Other programs operated under the IPP include the University Research, Engineering & Technology Institutes program, which funds cutting-edge research at selected universities and the Small Business Innovative Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. The locations of major facilities involved in the IPP network are shown in Figure 2.6.


Astronauts are the most famous NASA workers. In 1959 the first group of seven astronauts was chosen from 500 candidates. All were military men with experience flying jets. At the time, spacecraft restrictions required that astronauts be less than 5 feet 11 inches tall. In the early days of the Apollo program all astronauts were chosen from the military services. This soon changed, and NASA began including civilian pilots with extensive flight experience. During the mid-1960s NASA expanded the astronaut corps to include non-pilots with academic qualifications in science, engineering, or medicine.

TABLE 2.4 Astronaut candidate selection process timeline, 2007–08 "Astronaut Candidate Selection Process Timeline," in Astronaut Selection, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, October 21, 2005, (accessed January 31, 2006)

Astronaut candidate selection process timeline, 2007–08
July 1st 2007 July-Aug. 2007 Aug.-Dec. 2007 Sept.-Dec. 2007 Spring 2008 Summer 2008
Note: This schedule is subject to change.
SOURCE: "Astronaut Candidate Selection Process Timeline," in Astronaut Selection, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, October 21, 2005, (accessed January 31, 2006)
Cutoff date for receipt of new applications Applications reviewed by Astronaut Candidate (ASCAN) Selection Rating Panel to determine highly qualified (HQ) applicants Evaluation forms sent to supervisors and references of HQ applicants Week-long interviews and medical examinations conducted Applicants interviewed will be contacted by phone New Astronaut Candidates report for duty to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas
Request for prescreening medical exam sent to civilian HQ applicants New Astronaut Candidates publicly announced
HQ applications reviewed by ASCAN Selection Board to select the applicants to be interviewed Applicants not selected notified by letter

In 1978 the first group of space shuttle astronauts was selected. For the first time the trainees included women and minorities. The unique environment aboard the space shuttle permitted even more opportunities for non-pilots to fly into space.

A typical shuttle crew includes a commander and a pilot. Both of these crewmembers are considered pilot astronauts. In addition there can be three to five other crewmembers called mission specialists or payload specialists. Mission specialists are NASA astronauts (typically scientists) with specific onboard responsibilities during a mission. Payload specialists can be scientists, engineers, and ordinary citizens from the private or commercial sector or foreign astronauts invited by NASA to participate in a shuttle mission.

Space shuttle commanders, pilots, and mission specialists are career NASA astronauts, as are commanders and flight engineers that serve aboard the ISS.

During the early 1980s NASA was enthusiastic about including private citizens on space shuttle flights. This was viewed as a way to better interest the public, and particularly children, in space travel. One of the most famous participants was Christa McAuliffe (1948–86), the first schoolteacher selected to go into space. On January 28, 1986, she died along with her crewmates when the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch. This disaster ended NASA's policy of inviting private citizens on shuttle flights.

In 2002 NASA organized a new program to put a teacher in space called the Educator Astronaut program. Under this program qualified teachers were invited to apply to be full-time career astronauts. At the time NASA planned to select three to six Educator Astronauts for future space shuttle flights. Although the program continued following the 2003 Columbia disaster, its future is uncertain given the plans to eliminate the shuttle program.

The 1980s witnessed several firsts in NASA's astronaut corps. In June 1983 Sally Ride (1951–) became the first U.S. woman in space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger. It was the shuttle's seventh mission. Two months later mission specialist Guion Bluford (1942–) became the first African-American in space as part of the shuttle's next mission.

Astronaut Selection

NASA accepts applications from astronaut candidates on an ongoing basis. Civilian candidates submit their applications directly to NASA. Candidates in the armed forces are pre-screened by the military. Every two years NASA conducts a review process to select a new group of astronauts. This process begins in odd-numbered years and follows a very specific format.

The next selection process begins on July 1, 2007, as shown in Table 2.4. The first day of July is the cutoff date for receipt of new applications. Throughout July and August the applications are reviewed by the Astronaut Candidate Selection Rating Panel. The panel narrows the field to those applicants considered highly qualified (HQ) and collects information about them through the remainder of the year. This information is used to select HQ applicants for extensive interviews and medical examinations. By spring of the following even-numbered year the selection process is complete. The names of the successful candidates are released to the media. Those selected begin training soon afterwards at Johnson Space Center in Texas. The training period lasts one to two years.

Pilot astronaut applicants must have at least 1,000 hours of command flying experience in jet aircraft. Preference is given to pilots with flight test experience. Pilot candidates must also pass a stringent medical examination and be between sixty-four and seventy-six inches tall. Mission specialists are required to pass a less stringent medical examination and must be between fifty-eight-and-a-half and seventy-six inches tall.

Astronaut Pay Rates

Civilian astronauts employed by NASA are civil servants. They are paid salaries based on the federal government's pay scale called the General Schedule or GS. There are fifteen GS pay levels ranging from the lowest (GS-1) to the highest (GS-15). NASA's mission specialists fall within grades GS-11 through GS-13 depending on their education, experience, and qualifications. These grade scales cover a salary range between approximately $56,000 and $104,000 per year.

Active-duty military personnel selected to be NASA astronauts remain on the military payroll during their assignment to Johnson Space Center.

Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - Nasa's Budget [next] [back] Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - Nasa's Organization And Facilities

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