Oct. 3, 2011 at 6:55 PM ET
NASA says it's opening the application process for astronaut candidates in early November, for the first time since the shuttle fleet's retirement this summer.
Even though the shuttles will never fly again, and even though astronauts will be traveling to the International Space Station exclusively on Russian spacecraft for at least the next three years, it takes years to train a new crop of spacefliers and get them into the rotation. The class of candidates to be selected over the next year and a half could conceivably be among the first visitors to a near-Earth asteroid in the mid-2020s.
"For scientists, engineers and other professionals who have always dreamed of experiencing spaceflight, this is an exciting time to join the astronaut corps," Janet Kavandi, director of flight crew operations at NASA's Johnson Space Center. said in today's announcement on the selection process. "This next class will support missions to the station and will arrive via transportation systems now in development. They also will have the opportunity to participate in NASA's continuing exploration programs that will include missions beyond low Earth orbit."
Duane Ross, the manager for NASA's astronaut candidate programs, told me that NASA was still working on the detailed timeline for the application and selection process — but when it's time to put in your application, you'll click on a link posted on the space agency's Astronaut Selection website. A tentative timeline suggests that the application deadline will be sometime early next year, that the candidates would be chosen in the first half of 2013, and that they'd report for duty that summer.
How many will be chosen? Ross can't say at this point, but he's guessing that the process will go much as it did in 2009, the last time NASA selected a new class of astronauts. About 3,500 people applied, somewhere around 110 were selected to undergo an initial interview, and in the end, nine Americans were selected to join NASA's astronaut corps. They were joined by 10 others from Japan, Canada and Europe.
Ross estimated that NASA's next class might have eight to 12 astronaut candidates. "It's not going to be a big number," he said.
Today's announcement comes less than a month after a report from the National Research Council warned that NASA may not have enough astronauts to meet the demands of future missions, to the space station as well as beyond Earth orbit. That report noted that NASA had 150 spacefliers in 1999, but only 61 active-duty astronauts in 2011. The end of the 30-year space shuttle program accelerated the exodus.
When the Class of 2009 was being selected, NASA already knew that crop of candidates would never fly on the shuttle, so the selection criteria were tweaked to focus on the requirements for long-duration space station missions. "The mission hasn't changed since last time," Ross said.
"The key things we'll be looking for is evidence that folks can come in and work in an operational environment," he said. That means you don't have to be a fighter jock to apply. "There's lots of ways you can get that experience," Ross said.
However, you do have to have a certain kind of the Right Stuff. "A bachelor's degree in engineering science or math and three years of relevant professional experience are required in order to be considered," NASA said. "Typically, successful applicants have significant qualifications in engineering or science, or extensive experience flying high-performance jet aircraft."
If you're selected, you'll have to relocate to Houston. You'll have to give up your old job. The annual salaries for civilians range from $64,724 to $155,500 — that is, GS-11 to GS-14 on the federal civil-service pay scale. Some travel will be required. But if you're really thinking of applying, my guess is that none of these practical considerations will matter much to you.
Update for 5:45 p.m. ET Oct. 7: NASA spokesman Michael Curie says that the space agency "still is evaluating the number of astronauts it will select in the new class, but we expect the number to be between nine and 15."
More about the astronaut's life:
Additional information about the Astronaut Candidate Program is available by calling the Astronaut Selection Office at 281-483-5907.
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