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NASA's newest astronauts face the press — and the great unknown

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NASA's brand-new class of astronauts met the press for the first time at Johnson Space Center in Houston on Tuesday — and addressed the not-completely-answerable questions about where they'll be going.

The eight astronaut candidates represent the first group that's evenly split between men and women. They're also the first future spacefliers to be named since the retirement of the shuttle fleet two years ago.

"These next-generation American astronauts will be among those who will have the opportunity to fly on new commercial space transportation systems that are now under development," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the audience. "And more importantly, they will be among those who plan and perhaps carry out the first-ever human missions to an asteroid and on to Mars."

Itinerary is up in the air
NASA's current exploration plan calls for U.S.-built commercial spaceships to take astronauts to the International Space Station starting in 2017 or so. The space agency would send astronauts to rendezvous with a piece of an asteroid by the mid-2020s, and begin crewed trips to Mars and its moons in the mid-2030s.

However, that exploration plan is in flux: House Republicans say they want to scrap the asteroid mission and focus on the moon and Mars instead. And on Tuesday, NASA unveiled an updated "Global Exploration Roadmap" that foresees potential commercial and international missions to the moon and its vicinity. 

Image: Astronaut candidates
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left, introduces the latest class of astronaut candidates at Johnson Space Center in Houston on Tuesday, with a mockup of the Orion exploration vehicle in the background.

With a mockup of NASA's next-generation Orion exploration capsule serving as a backdrop, the eight faced questions about where they'd like to go — and their answers generally played it safe. For example, Christina Hammock, who came to NASA from a research job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, set her sights on the existing orbital destination.

"I have to say I'm actually most excited about the prospect of potentially contributing to the research on the International Space Station," she said. "It's doing amazing work, and it's a one-of-a-kind laboratory."

Nicole Mann, a major in the Marine Corps, said that "we're ready here, open, willing to learn and train for whatever mission NASA has put forth for us."

They've only just begun
One of the big reasons why the answers were so open-ended is that the astronaut candidates are just starting their training. Their selection was announced two months ago, and most of the time since then has been given over to putting their affairs in order and making the move to Houston. Some of the candidates were sworn in as NASA employees just last week.

"During the interview process, the focus was really on trying to find out what we were going to step into in terms of the next two years of training, and on station," said Nick Hague, an Air Force lieutenant colonel. "We've got senior leadership that's going to make their decisions, and I'll be happy to fly anywhere they tell me to."

Tuesday's event was something of a shakedown cruise for the astronaut candidates, known as "ascans" for short. "None of us has ever stood in front of a group like this, and really, getting questions like that and being interested in the answers — that's certainly new for all of us," said Ann McClain, an Army major and helicopter pilot.

Over the next two years, the trainees will be learning the ropes for space station operations and filling support roles for the station's expedition crews, who are currently flying back and forth on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. They'll be making the rounds at NASA centers across the country. Bob Behnken, chief of NASA's astronaut office, said they'll also have the opportunity to train on NASA's T-38 jets "to get that aviation background under their belts."

In addition to the questions about where they want to go, the eight fielded questions about how they got where they are today. That was a topic all of them were familiar with. Hague, for example, recalled that he first applied to become an astronaut a little over 10 years ago — and that he and his family rode an "emotional roller coaster" of applications, rejections, and finally acceptance.

Hague said future applicants should expect to employ a similar level of persistence: "If you find something ... you find it, you want to go for it, figure out the steps you need to get there. And don't take no for an answer. Just keep working hard, and it can pay off."

More about the astronauts:

In addition to Hague, Hammock, Mann and McClain, the 2013 astronaut candidate class includes Josh Cassada, Victor Glover, Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan. For still more about all the candidates, check out NASA's website.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.