Astronauts and cosmonauts work together on the space station. © Getty Images

Astronauts and cosmonauts work together on the space station. © Getty Images

A man or woman who pilots a spacecraft or works in space is called an astronaut.

The job of an astronaut is to operate spacecraft and space stations, launch and recapture satellites, and conduct scientific experiments in space. In Russia, this person is a cosmonaut and in the newer Chinese space program, a taikonaut (say tie-koe-nort).

Did you know?

The word astronaut comes from Greek words that mean ‘sailor among the stars’. Cosmonaut means ‘sailor of the universe’.  Taikonaut comes from the Chinese words tai kong , meaning ‘outer space’.

Astronauts do many different jobs

Pilot astronauts command and pilot shuttles. Mission specialists work with pilots to maintain spacecraft and the onboard equipment. They conduct experiments , launch satellites and perform spacewalks to work outside the spacecraft. They may be engineers, scientists, or physicians who have extensive research experience. Payload specialists carry out scientific experiments involving the spacecraft’s cargo, or payload. Most are scientists who work for the owner of the payload.

Astronaut Training

Trainees have classes in aerodynamics, physics, physiology, computer science, among other subjects. They learn about communications and about the equipment, and sometimes subjects related to missions to which they may be assigned. For example, Skylab crews learned astronomy, geology and life sciences as training for their experiments and observations.

Flight training takes place in the jet aircraft that are designed to perform in the same way as a space shuttle during landing. Candidates also have survival training in case the shuttle has an emergency landing in water or in the wilderness. Basic mission training includes the study of the cockpit layout and flight control systems.

Astonauts train hard for the jobs they will do in outer space. © Getty Images

Astonauts train hard for the jobs they will do in outer space. © Getty Images

Candidates are trained also for the actual conditions of space flight such as weightlessness. In large planes that climb steeply and dive, they are able to experience short periods of almost weightlessness as they float in the padded cabin. Floating in water also assists training.

After this, candidates progress to advanced mission training, which is conducted in simulators and mock ups that can reproduce the conditions and events of an actual mission. Simulators train them not only in tasks they will do as routine, but also what they may have to do if things go wrong. They spend about eight hours a day in a simulator, and are given problems to solve as training for emergency situations. Mock ups are full-sized models of spacecraft in which they practice working, living, entering and leaving.

Astronauts work on the ground also, passing on information and instructions to the crew. They help find solutions if problems arise on a mission.

Astronaut Clothing

Astronauts on the International Space Station choose the clothing they will wear in space months before they are scheduled to go, and the clothing is delivered by the resupply vehicle before their arrival. They can choose either American or Russian clothing to wear on the Space Station. Most choose shorts, shirts and trousers. On the Space Station it is not necessary to change clothes as often as on earth because astronauts don’t get as dirty, and in order to save water there is no washing machine on board. Clothing that has been worn as much as possible is placed in a bag for disposal in the resupply vehicle.

Launch and Entry Suits (LES)

During launch and entry aboard a space shuttle, an astronaut wears a Launch and Entry Suit (LES), a special suit that maintains air pressure around the body and provides enough air pressure for the astronaut to survive the return to Earth during an emergency landing. In case of an emergency landing in cold water, the suit also provides protection against the cold. The LES provides an emergency oxygen system; parachute harness; parachutes; a life raft; two litres of emergency drinking water; flotation devices; survival vest pockets containing a radio/beacon, signal mirror, flare kit, sea dye marker, and signal beacons. The attached parachute can be opened automatically or manually. Russian cosmonauts wear the same suits and call them Sokol suits.

Spacewalk suits: 

Spacewalk suits protect astronauts and cosmonauts while they are outside the spacecraft © Getty Images

Spacewalk suits protect astronauts and cosmonauts while they are outside the spacecraft © Getty Images

Astronauts and cosmonauts who move outside a spacecraft to complete tasks such as repairs or maintenance must wear a special spacesuit called an Extravehicular Mobility Unit , which provides a complete life support system. Each can be used for about 25 ‘space walks’. The spacesuit includes helmet-mounted flood and spot lights; and a jet-pack ‘life jacket’ to enable an astronaut who has accidentally become unattached from the spacecraft to fly back to it.

Read the kidcyber page Living in space and watch a video of astronauts in space.

Read more about astronaut clothing

Look at photos of astronauts performing tasks outside their spacecraft and read some facts about space walks

The space station orbits the Earth. © Getty Images

The space station orbits the Earth. © Getty Images

Take a tour of the International Space Station