- Reuters/Carlos Barria
- NASA astronauts must pass a grueling application process before being selected.
- Their annual salaries are determined using a government pay scale, and starting out, fall under two grades: GS-12 and GS-13.
- According to the 2018 government pay scale, an astronaut earns between $63,600 and $98,317 per year.
As entrepreneurs like SpaceX founder Elon Musk launch increasingly powerful rockets, call for a new space race, and prepare to send astronauts into orbit for the first time, it’s an exciting time to think of joining NASA’s ranks.
But to apply to be an astronaut, you must first pass a stringent list of requirements, including being a US citizen, having an accredited college degree in science, engineering, or mathematics, and three years of professional experience or 1,000 hours piloting a jet aircraft under your belt.
Then you have to go through a grueling selection process that is about 74 times harder than getting into Harvard University: NASA selects a new astronaut class once every couple of years, and picked only 12 of 18,300 applicants in 2017.
So how much does NASA compensate its astronauts for their experience, extensive training, and willingness to risk their lives to explore space?
According to a frequently asked questions page on NASA’s website, the annual salary is “based on the Federal Government’s General Schedule pay scale for grades GS-12 through GS-13.”
“Each person’s grade is determined according to his/her academic achievements and experience,” NASA adds.
Such grades are used to determine how much white-collar career employees are paid across many government agencies, and they are further broken down into steps ranging from 1 through 10, which are based on acceptable performance and years of service.
The US Office of Personnel Management is in charge of the base pay and leave figures, and the numbers change each year.
The pay range for active astronauts
In 2018, according to OPM pay scales, a new astronaut with a GS-12 grade and Step 1 experience and performance would earn $63,600 per year. After several years of excellent performance, the same astronaut might be eligible to make the GS-12’s Step 10 pay: $82,680 per year.
Meanwhile, more-qualified astronauts with a GS-13 pay grade could initially earn $75,628 per year (Step 1) and, after several years, up to $98,317 per year (Step 3).
But astronauts aren’t locked into GS-12 and GS-13 for their careers; they can earn the top tier of the pay scale – GS-15 Step 10 – and upward of $120,000 per year, depending on their position, responsibilities, and performance within the astronaut corp.
“When a civilian is selected for the Astronaut Program, his/her grade may initially be at the GS12/13 level, although some are higher,” William “Bill” McArthur, a former astronaut, told Business Insider in an email. “While an active astronaut, from 2001 until 2007, I was at the top of the [Civil] Service grade scale.”
This story was updated with new information.