There's a new breed of astronauts in town. And that's a good thing, since these days, astronauts aren't spending their time flying fighter planes or learning how to operate the shuttle.
Instead, they're taking Russian language classes and coping with jet lag.
NASA's newest class of astronauts signed up knowing there'd be no U.S. rockets to launch them into space, at least not in the immediate future. Once NASA retires its shuttle fleet next week, when Atlantis returns from the 135th and final flight in the 30-year- old program, what will all the astronauts aspire to?
"I never thought about not applying," one of NASA's nine new recruits, Kiell Lindgren, told Discovery News. "For as long as I can remember I wanted to work for the space program and hoped of being an astronaut."
The shuttle program's end leaves just a fraction of the flight opportunities astronauts usually have each year. Instead, about four U.S. astronauts will be tapped for six-month stints on the International Space Station, with the remaining eight spots filled by Russian and partner countries.
The crews will fly on Russian Soyuz rockets until and unless U.S. commercial companies develop private space taxis to ferry them to the International Space Station.
"We knew as we were going through the interview process that there was no suggestion that any of us would fly on the shuttle. We knew we were being hired to work on the space station, to do long duration spaceflight," said Lindgren, a 38-year-old father of three and who served as a NASA flight surgeon before being selected as an astronaut in 2009.
Training for the International Space Station missions will take 2.5 years and entail repeated travel to five different countries. The grueling and intense training is a good test for those applying to NASA's post-shuttle astronaut corp.
"We get thousands of applicants from people who are technically extremely well qualified," said chief astronaut Peggy Whitson, a veteran of two long-duration station missions. "We're taking that technical competence and finding someone who will do well in a less-than-optimal environment."
"I tell everybody the most important factor is being able to play well with others," Whitson told Discovery News.
Lindgren, for example, doesn't know when he'll fly, or how long his astronaut career may last. Long-duration stays in space can trigger a wave of health issues, including radiation exposure, bone loss and potentially permanent vision changes.
There's also uncertainty about what NASA will do after the space station, which will be the focus on the U.S. human space program until at least 2020.
The Obama administration wants NASA to use some of the money previously spent to fly the shuttle to develop new spaceships that can travel beyond the station's 240-mile-high orbit where the shuttles cannot go. Potential destinations include an asteroid, the moon and eventually Mars.
"It's such a huge challenge," Lindgren said of a human expedition to Mars. "I don't know when the time will come where we'll really feel we're ready to take something on like that, but I think there needs to come a time where we dedicate ourselves to that task and put our foot down and say, 'This is what we’re going to do and this is how we're going to do it,' much like (President John F.) Kennedy did back in the '60s."
Lindgren and his classmates already are working toward the day when NASA will send astronauts to explore another planetary body. In addition to studying Russian, working with robots and practicing spacewalking, the new-age astronauts now take field trips to learn geology.