Astronauts are probably the closest thing in the world to real-life superheroes. They fly around in spaceships, explore distant planets, and are generally just some of the most impressive people out there. Seriously, who didn’t dream about becoming an astronaut when they were a kid? Unfortunately for most of us, becoming an astronaut is extremely difficult. According to NASA’s website, there are several strict requirements for becoming an astronaut.
First of all, you need to be a citizen of the United States. Second, you have to have a master’s degree in a STEM field (such as engineering, computer science, biological science, or mathematics) and you probably won’t get selected for the program unless you get that degree from an outstanding university. Next, you have to have at least two years of related professional experience or 1,000 hours working as the commanding pilot on a jet aircraft. Finally, you have to pass NASA’s notoriously rigorous physical test. And those are just the minimum requirements. To get accepted into NASA’s space program, your resume is going to have to be really damn impressive.
After you’re accepted to astronaut training, you have to spend an entire two years learning skills like spacewalking, controlling a robotic arm, and operating a space station. So, with how difficult it is to become an astronaut, I bet you’d expect that these admirable men and women get paid a whole boatload. But, while the average salary for astronauts certainly isn’t low, you might still be surprised how much these heroes make every year.
Average Salaries for Astronauts
Not all astronauts are paid the same. In fact, there are five separate pay grades for astronauts: GS-11, GS-12, GS-13, and GS-14. The pay grade that you fall into depends on your academic achievements as well as your on-the-job experience. GS-11 astronauts received a median salary of around $65,000 in 2020. GS-12 astronauts get a boost to around $75,000. GS-13 astronauts make more like $85,000. A GS-14 astronaut can make as much as $140,000 per year. And a GS-15’s annual salary can be as high as $160,000. However, across all five pay grades, the average annual salary of an astronaut sits right around $80,000.
Like pretty much all other civil servants, astronauts receive fantastic government benefits on top of their salaries. As government employees, they get access to the Federal Employees Retirement System, which includes Social Security, a pension plan, and optional access to the Thrift Savings Plan. On top of that, astronauts enjoy benefits such as paid sick days and flexible work and leave opportunities.
So, if you were worried about whether or not the men and women that risk their lives hurling themselves into the vacuum of space were fairly compensated, it’s alright. For the most part, astronauts receive a solid salary and some outstanding benefits. But is it enough for the risk that they take? And how does it compare to what astronauts used to make back in the days of early space exploration?
How Much Astronauts Used to Make
Alright, to be clear, astronauts back in the days of Apollo 11 (probably the most famous space mission of all time) were paid pretty much the same as they are now. Neil Armstrong was the highest paid of the three flying astronauts, making a salary of a little over $27,000, which translates to around $190,000 when adjusted for inflation. Yes, it’s a good amount more than what the top-earning astronauts today make, but the guy was the first person to ever set foot on the Moon. Buzz Aldrin earned an inflation-adjusted $130,000 per year and Michael Collins earned a slightly smaller $120,000.
However, while their salaries may have been quite similar to the astronauts of today, the Apollo 11 astronauts earned a whole hell of a lot more money in their lifetimes than today’s astronauts. The late Neil Armstrong’s estate’s reported net worth is somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million and Buzz Aldrin’s reported net worth sits at around $12 million. So, what’s the difference between these guys and today’s astronauts?
The Apollo 11 astronauts enjoyed a celebrity status that just no longer applies to the astronauts of today. Indeed, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong have become household names since their history-making journey to the Moon. For whatever reason, Michael Collins’s name is less well-known, but he’s still far more recognizable than most of the more recent astronauts. And this makes perfect sense. When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, it was a first. The concept of space travel and human beings walking on a foreign celestial body was new and mysterious. These days, as space exploration has advanced, it’s become less exciting to the public. Similarly, when the first smartphone came out, everyone lost their minds about it. Today, everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, and so they’ve become an afterthought.
Aldrin and Armstrong were both able to use their celebrity statuses to amass large amounts of wealth after their space flight. Armstrong got a job as a professor at the University of Cincinnati while serving as a member of the board at several large companies. Aldrin wrote nine successful books, including a New York Times bestseller. He is also the creator of the thinktank Human SpaceFlight Institute. Less is known about Collins life after the Apollo 11 mission; however, it seems pretty likely that he also had a windfall of success after returning to Earth.
Should Astronauts Get Paid More?
In my personal opinion, because of all the grueling years of academia followed by intensive NASA training and also the fact that astronauts implicitly risk their lives when traveling into space, they should receive a higher salary than they currently do. For reference, the average salary for a lawyer in 2021 was around $150,000. And while lawyers are very important to preserving the integrity of our legal system here in the United States, none of those lawyers are going to strap on a spacesuit and walk on another planet during their careers.
With all that being said, most astronauts probably aren’t complaining too much about not getting paid enough. As I stated at the beginning of the article, every kid has dreamed about being an astronaut. And, when it’s time for an astronaut to climb into a spacecraft and blast off, that’s a dream being realized. And that’s priceless