NASA's applications for its 2017 astronaut class closed on Thursday with a record number of 18,300 applicants. According to the agency, this is almost three times more applicants than applied in 2012 and far more than its previous record of 8000 applicants in 1978. From these 18,000 applicants, 8-14 individuals will be selected for the opportunity to become astronauts, a decision NASA hopes to make by mid-2017.
It is unclear why so many people chose to apply to be astronauts this time around, although Mars fever, coupled with the increasing exposure of never before seen space stunts from the commercial sector (see: SpaceX landing a rocket), both seem like they could be viable explanations for this remarkable uptick in applications.
"It's not at all surprising to me that so many Americans from diverse backgrounds want to personally contribute to blazing the trail on our journey to Mars," NASA's Administrator Charles Bolden, who is a former astronaut himself, said in a statement on Friday.
Over the next 18 months, NASA's Astronaut Selection Board will review each application to select the most highly qualified candidates.
When NASA selected its first group of seven astronauts in 1959, it drew specifically from a pool of 500 military men who had engineering and jet aircraft flight experience. By 1964, NASA shifted its criteria to astronauts with a certain academic, rather than military background: now candidates were required to have a doctorate degree in either the natural sciences, medicine, or engineering.
Now, astronauts must meet a different set of basic requirements. Candidates must have at least a bachelor's degree in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering, as well as three years of experience in a related field (or for pilots at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command flight time in a jet). Advanced degrees are still considered desirable in a candidate and can be substituted for experience (K-12 teaching is also considered as relevant experience, allowing educators to also apply). Candidates must also be able to pass the long duration space flight physical, which includes requirements such as 20/20 vision and a standing height between 62 and 75 inches.
The most qualified candidates who meet these basic requirements will then be invited to Johnson Space Center for interviews, after which the final selection of 8-14 candidates will be made. Following the final decision, these candidates will begin two years of rigorous training at Johnson, which will involve training on subjects such as spacecraft systems, spacewalking, and Russian language.
After successful completing the training the astronauts will be given technical duties at the Astronaut Office in Houston. Only then will they be assigned to one of four spacecraft: the International Space Station, Orion, or one of the two commercial crew spacecraft in development (Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon).
"We have our work cut out for us with this many applications," Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at Johnson, said in a press release. "But it's heartening to know so many people recognize what a great opportunity this is to be part of NASA's exciting mission. I look forward to meeting the men and women talented enough to rise to the top of what is always a pool of incredible applicants."