An unprecedented number of Americans just want to go to space...and maybe even Mars.
NASA says more than 18,300 Americans applied to be part of the space agency's 2017 astronaut class during a two-month application window that closed Thursday. That figure nearly triples the number of applicants that applied in 2012 for the last class of eight astronauts, the 2013 class, and smashes the previous record of 8,000 applications in 1978.
"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 administrator Charlie Bolden, himself a former astronaut, said in a statement. "A few exceptionally talented men and women will become the astronauts chosen in this group who will once again launch to space from US soil on American-made spacecraft."
Now begins an 18-month process of reviewing applications and inviting the most highly qualified candidates for interviews at Johnson Space Center in Houston before the final selection of 8 to 14 astronaut candidates in mid-2017. From there, the candidates will get two years of training in everything from spacewalking to Russian language skills, followed by some time in NASA's astronaut office before finally being assigned a space mission.
Whether anyone from the 2017 class ever steps foot on Mars, as NASA plans to do in the mid-2030s, remains to be seen. But the agency says the new astronauts' first missions, which would probably be around 2020 or later, could involve time on the International Space Station or new craft like the Orion spacecraft for deep-space exploration that will inform the journey to the Red Planet.
While it's great that there's so much enthusiasm to get into space, let's not forget that old adage that "space is hard." Hell, it's even dangerous. As a courtesy to all aspiring astronauts, I point you in the direction of this reality check detailing all the ways you could die on Mars.
You've been warned, applicants. Now good luck to you all. You're braver than I am, but I'll be rooting for you while remaining firmly rooted to the ground because, like Isaac Newton would have said had he lived in 2016, "You know old Izzy loves him some gravity."