A new class of astronauts is being sought by Nasa, now that a return to crewed missions from American soil is on the horizon.
The US space agency said it would accept applications for its astronaut corps from 14 December to mid-February 2016 and announce the successful candidates in mid-2017.
Since the space shuttle was mothballed in 2011, the only way to get into space has been to secure a seat aboard the three-person Russian Soyuz capsule and fly from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
While the Soyuz will continue to ferry people to and from the International Space Station, other vessels are on course to take over some of the trips. Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are developing the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively. Meanwhile, Nasa is building the Orion deep space exploration vehicle.
Nasa’s chief administrator, Charles Bolden, said the new class of space-farers would work on missions that will pave the way for putting humans on the surface of Mars. The agency last advertised for astronauts in November 2011.
“This next group of American space explorers will inspire the Mars generation to reach for new heights, and help us realise the goal of putting boot prints on the Red Planet,” he said.
Passing the selection tests and entering the astronaut corps, one of the most exclusive clubs in history, is no mean feat. Before they can hope to join the 47 active astronauts in the corps, candidates need a bachelor’s degree in maths, engineering, biological or physical sciences, but preferably an advanced degree too. On top of that, to meet the basic requirements, at least three years’ professional experience is needed, or at least 1,000 hours piloting a jet plane.
The end of the shuttle era marked the moment when access to low Earth orbit from the US was handed over from the government to the private sector. Flights on the Boeing and SpaceX vessels are expected to allow a seventh person to live on the International Space Station, meaning the equivalent of one astronaut can work full time on scientific research in space.
One priority of space station science is to understand more completely how long duration space travel takes its toll on the human brain and body. Two crew members, Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, are taking part in the One Year Mission on the station, the results of which could help devise ways of keeping astronauts healthy on the way to and from Mars.
Nasa’s new rocket, the space launch system, along with its Orion capsule, are expected to take astronauts into lunar orbit for missions that will act as stepping stones for the far more ambitious, and technologically challenging, trip to Mars.
“Our new astronauts will be at the forefront of these new and challenging space flight missions,” said Brian Kelly, director of flight operations at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.