How Astronauts Compare to the Rest of the U.S. Workforce

0.00003 percent of working Americans are astronauts.
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NASA Astronaut Bruce McCandless II using a Manned Maneuvering Unit outside Space Shuttle Challenger on shuttle mission STS-41-B in 1984. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

NASA Astronaut Bruce McCandless II using a Manned Maneuvering Unit outside Space Shuttle Challenger on shuttle mission STS-41-B in 1984. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration received a record 18,300 applications to its latest astronaut class, the agency announced after the application deadline last week. Although NASA didn't say how many of those applicants it would ultimately choose, it has never selected more than 35 astronauts in a year. Officials expect to announce their picks in mid-2017.

After doing a lot of reporting on the American labor force, it has come to our attention that "astronaut" is an unusual job title for an American. Just how unusual? We decided to look at the numbers:

  • As of April 2013, NASA had 50 active astronauts, according to the agency's Astronaut Fact Book. At that time, there were 155 million working Americans, making astronauts 0.00003 percent of the workforce.
  • Depending on experience, astronauts earn between about $66,000 and $145,000 a year. That makes a lower-earning astronaut only a bit above the median American income of $54,000, though at the higher end, astronauts are well within the top 20 percent of American earners.
  • Astronauts are disproportionately male. Out of all the astronauts NASA has ever selected, 18 percent were women. That's still a better rate than, say, engineers, 15 percent of whom are women; or physicists and astronomers, 12 percent of whom are women.
  • Astronauts face stiff competition for their positions. For the last astronaut class, selected in 2013, only 0.1 percent of applicants got the job. Before this year, the greatest number of applications NASA received was in 1978, when 8,000 Americans put their hats in the ring—and only 0.4 percent of applicants were chosen.

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