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Exploring the unknown: NASA is now choosing astronauts who may one day travel to Mars.
NASA
Bridget tours the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Photo courtesy of the author
Taking Flight
NASA prepares to welcome a new class of astronauts.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon. NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is now preparing for another monumental step in human space exploration—a journey to Mars.

Every few years, NASA invites individuals to apply to become astronauts. In previous years, the largest number of applicants was 8,000 in 1978. This year, a record 18,300 astronaut hopefuls applied.

Why is there so much enthusiasm about space exploration? I recently visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to find out. “NASA tried to disseminate the announcement as widely as possible this year,” said Anne Roemer, who manages the astronaut selection program. “Pop culture also worked in our favor—if you look at the movies The Martian and Interstellar.”

THE RIGHT STUFF

In order to become an astronaut, an applicant must have a degree in science, math, or engineering, and at least three years of professional experience in his or her chosen field.

Highly qualified candidates are called in for interviews and go through a lengthy screening process. “NASA focuses on choosing people who can get along with others for a long period of time, know how to develop professional relationships, know how to communicate clearly, and can listen and understand others,” said Christina Koch, an astronaut who was selected in the 2013 class.

The current selection process will end in mid-2017. Eight to 14 talented applicants will be chosen. They will then undergo two years of training to become mission-ready astronauts. “We do a lot of group activities,” Koch said. “We get to know our teammates and learn how we can develop good expeditionary [voyaging] behavior.”

JOURNEY TO MARS?

What adventures are in store for the 2017 class of astronauts? “We’re farther down the path to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA’s history,” said Charles Bolden, the current NASA Administrator. With the Orion spacecraft in development, NASA is hoping to send humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s.

How should aspiring astronauts prepare? “Do well in school, participate in a lot of activities, and [always] try new things,” Roemer advised. Since a Mars landing is probably a few decades away, perhaps you will be on the first flight to the red planet!