MELBOURNE, Fla. – NASA has a wide selection to choose from for its next class of astronauts, who could be among the first to head back to the moon and on to Mars through the space agency's Artemis program.
The astronaut application program closed March 31 and the space agency drew more than 12,000 applicants from every U.S. state, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories.
This marks the second-highest number of applicants NASA has ever received, surpassed only by its most recent class of astronauts, who graduated in January. That class had 18,300 applicants before NASA made its selection.
“We’ve entered a bold new era of space exploration with the Artemis program, and we are thrilled to see so many incredible Americans apply to join us,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “The next class of Artemis Generation astronauts will help us explore more of the moon than ever before and lead us to the Red Planet.”
This was also the first time that NASA tightened its qualifications to apply to be an astronaut. Instead of just needing a bachelor's degree in a science, technology, engineering or math field, a master's degree was also required in one of those fields. The application process was also shortened from two months to one month.
Though the application process is closed, NASA doesn't expect to introduce its new astronaut candidates until summer 2021.
After selecting its astronaut candidates, the candidates will go through approximately two years of training, which includes prepping for spacewalks, robotics, spacecraft systems as well as expeditionary behavior skills that entail leadership, followership and teamwork skills.
Upon completion, the new class of astronauts could potentially launch on American rockets and spacecraft like SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner capsule through NASA's Commercial Crew Program to live and work onboard the International Space Station.
Currently, American astronauts launch aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that takes them to the space station. That could all change this year, however.
Onboard the space station, the astronauts will take part in experiments that not only benefit life on Earth, but also prepare humans to go back to the moon and on to Mars.
The new class of astronauts could even launch on NASA's heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, which is scheduled to land humans on the moon as soon as 2024 and send humans to Mars in the 2030s.
“We’re able to build such a strong astronaut corps at NASA because we have such a strong pool of applicants to choose from,” said Anne Roemer, manager of the Astronaut Selection Board and director of human resources at Johnson in the press release. “It’s always amazing to see the diversity of education, experience and skills that are represented in our applicants. We are excited to start reviewing astronaut applications to identify the next class of astronaut candidates.”
Since the 1960s, NASA has selected 350 people to train as astronaut candidates and currently has 48 astronauts in the active astronaut corps.
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