There was a generation of kids who grew up idolizing the astronauts. The men of the Mercury missions, the Apollo crews -- the guys who risked everything, put it all on the line to beat the Russians and launch into outer space.
John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong -- these guys were national heroes, the "single combat warriors" Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Right Stuff.
In 1978, the kids that had spent their childhoods in awe of the men who went from the earth to the moon were big enough to try and become astronauts themselves. That year NASA had more than 8,000 applicants, the most in the history of the program, who wanted to be astronauts.
They chose 35 of them, and Sally Ride filled one of those spots, the first woman in the United States to get to outer space. (Say what you will about the Soviets, but they were ahead on this one. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963.)
For the past year and a half, NASA has again been looking for some people with "the right stuff" for the program and despite everything - despite scrapping plans to go back to the moon, and the budget cuts and the end of the space shuttle program - they got their second largest number of applicants ever. In choosing who would fill the eight spots for astronaut trainees, NASA officials got to draw from more than 6,000 applicants, according to a NASA release.
The applicants were winnowed down to a pool of 120 who qualified for initial interviews. Then they cut that down 49 candidates who were run through physical and psychological tests and another interview, according to the Christian Science Monitor. (In our head that final interview looks like the pageant interview from Miss Congeniality, but odds are good it was a little more serious than that, and minus the swimsuit competition.)
They ended up selecting four women and four men, the highest ratio of women selected for a trainee group in the space agency's history. This round of selection also marked the first time the folks over at NASA were looking at applicants who didn't necessarily watch Neil Armstrong's historic first steps on the moon, who may not have been alive when the Apollo 13 mission got into trouble and Jim Lovell radioed in, "Houston, we have a problem." Not one of the final eight selected -- their selection was announced Monday -- was even born when Alan Shepard became the first American to travel in space.
No, instead, this group remembers the birth of the International Space Station and the space shuttle flights. Maybe they saw Challenger explode on television. They remember the day the Columbia disintegrated, leaving a trail of debris as it streaked through the morning sky.
These astronauts will be working in an entirely different world than the one inhabited by the likes of Glenn and Gus Grissom and the race against the Russians that once fueled the U.S. space program. Instead of being launched into space by U.S. space shuttles, they'll be hitching rides through commercial space flights from now on, according to NASA. (Guess the whole idea about getting a lift from the Russians to the International Space Station isn't looking as likely just now.)
In this era of the post-budget cuts space program as the whole program continues to be caught in political wrangling between the White House and Congress -- and with rumblings of more cuts on the horizon -- the astronauts signing up now will be training to make trips to the International Space Station and might be a part of the first manned mission to Mars or the first expedition to an asteroid.
The new trainees will actually get said training beginning in August at the Johnson Space Center. (We didn't get a friggin' shuttle, but the JSC is still the place where astronauts come to learn how to be astronauts. Which leads to the question, why was it again that Houston didn't get a shuttle but New York City did?)
They're joining 49 astronauts currently on active duty for the program, a number that has shrunk since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011 putting astronauts in a long mission wait line, the Associated Press noted.
The trainees are all in their 30s, come from all over the place and seem to meet the qualifications on becoming an astronaut, according to the requirements laid out in the FAQ section on the NASA website:
"Any adult man or woman in excellent physical condition who meets the basic qualifications can be selected to enter astronaut training. For mission specialists and pilot astronauts, the minimum requirements include a bachelor's degree in engineering, science or mathematics from an accredited institution. Three years of related experience must follow the degree, and an advanced degree is desirable. Pilot astronauts must have at least 1,000 hours of experience in jet aircraft, and they need better vision than mission specialists. Competition is extremely keen, with an average of more than 4,000 applicants for about 20 openings every two years. Astronaut recruiting occurs periodically."
The eight new astronauts added to the roster have backgrounds in the military or academia or both and seem to pretty much fit the bill for having that ineffable substance known as "the right stuff." They can all scuba dive, some have fighter jet experience and others have lived in places as remote as Greenland and Antarctica, according to the CSM. So now it'll just be interesting to see if Josh Cassada, Victor Glover, Tyler Hague, Christina Hammock, Nicole Mann, Anne McClain and Jessica Meir get to do the kind of space travel they were dreaming of when the space shuttles were still thundering out of Cape Canaveral and the U.S. had a way to get them to space without buying a ticket. Below is the full background released by NASA, just in case y'all are curious:
Josh A. Cassada, Ph.D., 39, is originally from White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Cassada is a former naval aviator who holds an undergraduate degree from Albion College and advanced degrees from the University of Rochester, New York. Cassada is a physicist by training and currently is serving as co-founder and Chief Technology Officer for Quantum Opus.
Victor J. Glover, 37, Lt. Commander, U.S. Navy, hails from Pomona, California, and Prosper, Texas. He is an F/A-18 pilot and graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards, California. Glover holds degrees from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California; Air University and the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He currently serves as a Navy Legislative Fellow in the U.S. Congress.
Tyler N. (Nick) Hague, 37, Lt. Colonel, U.S. Air Force, calls Hoxie, Kansas, home. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado.; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards, California. Hague currently is supporting the Department of Defense as Deputy Chief of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
Christina M. Hammock, 34, calls Jacksonville, North Carolina, home. Hammock holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina. She currently serves as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Station Chief in American Samoa.
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Nicole Aunapu Mann, 35, Major, U.S. Marine Corps, originally is from Penngrove, California. She is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Stanford University and the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Patuxent River, Maryland. Mann is an F/A 18 pilot, currently serving as an Integrated Product Team Leader at the U.S. Naval Air Station, Patuxent River.
Anne C. McClain, 34, Major, U.S. Army, lists her hometown as Spokane, Washington. She is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and the University of Bath and the University of Bristol, both in the United Kingdom. McClain is an OH-58 helicopter pilot and a recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Naval Air Station, Patuxent River.
Jessica U. Meir, Ph.D., 35, is from Caribou, Maine. She is a graduate of Brown University, has an advanced degree from the International Space University, and earned her doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Meir currently is an Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.
Andrew R. Morgan, M.D., 37, Major, U.S. Army, considers New Castle, Pennsylvania, home. Morgan is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and earned a doctorate in medicine from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md. He has experience as an emergency physician and flight surgeon for the Army special operations community, and currently is completing a sports medicine fellowship.