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

Space Organizations Part 1: NASA - Nasa's Workforce

astronauts astronaut shuttle mission

At the height of Apollo development NASA employed nearly 36,000 people. By the early 1990s this number had dropped to 24,000 and continued to decrease over the next several years. As shown in Figure 2.5 the workforce leveled off at around 18,000 people in 1998 and has remained near this level since then. 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.

NASA divides its 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 FIGURE 2.5
    Downsizing of the NASA workforce, 1993–2003
    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 percent of the agency's workforce. As of 2003 NASA employed approximately 10,600 people in technical occupations.

According to NASA's Human Resources department the vast majority of the agency's workforce is older than forty years old. (See Figure 2.6.) Only a tiny percentage of NASA's workforce is less than thirty years old. The average NASA employee is forty-six years old and has been with the agency for seventeen years. Figure 2.7 compares the gender and salary of NASA's employees to the overall federal workforce. Just over two-thirds of NASA employees are men. This percentage is somewhat higher than that found in the overall federal workforce.

Figure 2.8 shows that NASA technicians and scientists and engineers are overwhelmingly male, while clerical workers are overwhelmingly female. A slight majority of professional administrators are female.

Age distribution at NASA, by occupation, 2003

The average male NASA employee earns nearly $10,000 more per year than the average female employee (See Figure 2.7.) Female workers also have a slightly lower average number of years of service and are less likely to have college degrees. Only 67 percent of the female employees have college degrees, compared to 85 percent of the male employees. The male employees also hold more and higher degrees (master and doctorate) than do female employees.

People employed by federal agencies (excluding the military) are called civil servants. In 2003 NASA employed around 18,000 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. NASA's major contractors are manufacturing companies in the aerospace industry, for example, Boeing Corporation. NASA also funds research projects performed by people at private institutions, such as universities. In 2001 NASA funded 830 principal investigators engaged in biological and physical research for the agency. (See Figure 2.9.) The vast majority of these investigators (73 percent) were at universities. California and Texas accounted for just over one-fourth of all principal investigators.

Figure 2.9 also shows the locations of commercial space centers engaged in biological and physical research for NASA. There are fifteen of these centers located at universities in Alabama, Texas, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The centers conduct space-based research and development through a partnership of government, industry, and academic participants.


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.

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 on-board responsibilities during a mission. Payload specialists can be scientists, engineers, and ordinary citizens from the private/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. As of February 2004 NASA had 103 qualified commanders, pilots, and mission specialists as part of its active astronaut corps. Another forty experienced astronauts worked in management positions.

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, the first school-teacher 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.

Average salary and years of service of NASA employees, by gender, 2003

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 grounding of the space shuttle fleet and tentative plans to eliminate the shuttle program.

The 1980s witnessed several firsts in NASA's astronaut corps. In June 1983 Sally Ride 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 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 latest selection process began on July 1, 2003, as shown in Table 2.4. The first day of July is the cutoff date FIGURE 2.8
Proportion of men and women in various NASA occupational groups, 2003
National distribution of NASA biological and physical research
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 February 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.

Astronaut candidate selection process timeline

Odd-# years July 1ST 2003 Odd-# years July-Aug. 2003 Odd-# years Aug.-Dec. 2003 Odd-# years Sept.-Dec. 2003 Odd-# years Feb. 2004 Even-# years spring 2004
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
Note: NASA accepts applications on a continuous basis, and plans to make selections every 2 years, if needed. This schedule is subject to change. Individuals with applications on file will be notified of any major changes.
SOURCE: "Astronaut Candidate Selection Process Timeline," in Astronaut Selection, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, DC, May 1, 2003 [Online] [accessed January 14, 2004]

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 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 $50,000 and $100,000 per year.

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

Space Organizations Part 1: NASA - Nasa's Goals For The Future [next] [back] Space Organizations Part 1: NASA - Nasa's Organization And Facilities

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