NASA has announced its next round of astronauts, eight people who may one day fly to Mars or an asteroid, as the agency begins to enter its next stage of manned missions.
The eight were selected from a group of more than 6,100 applicants, the second-largest application pool ever. According to NASA, the group will "receive a wide array of technical training at space centers around the globe to prepare for missions to low-Earth orbit, an asteroid and Mars."
The new astronauts include Victor Glover, a Lt. Commander in the Navy, Tyler Hague, a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, Nicole Aunapu, a Major in the Marine Corps and Anne McClain and Andrew Morgan, Majors in the Army. Josh Cassada is a physicist and Chief Technology officer of Quantum Opus, a company specializing in photon detection; Christina Hammock is a NOAA station chief in American Samoa; and Jessica Meir is a professor of anasthesia at Harvard Medical School who has degrees from International Space University and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. All of the new astronaut candidates are in their 30s and will begin training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in August.
"These new space explorers asked to join NASA because they know we're doing big, bold things here – developing missions to go farther into space than ever before," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a released statement. "They're excited about the science we're doing on the International Space Station and our plan to launch from U.S. soil to there on spacecraft built by American companies. And they're ready to help lead the first human mission to an asteroid and then on to Mars."
Bolden has taken issue with the assertion that NASA is out of the manned space game. NASA currently has two astronauts on the International Space Station: Flight engineers Karen Nyberg and Chris Cassidy, who flew there aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. But NASA plans to shift manned trips to the International Space Station to commercial space operators as those companies improve their capabilities. The agency is planning manned missions aboard its Orion spacecraft within the next 10 years.
"Some have claimed that we're adrift, that we have no clear human space missions. That could not be further from the truth," Bolden said in Sept. 2012. "Those who perpetuate that myth are hurting the space program. We have a series of deep space missions planned."
Of those missions, the first will be an "asteroid lasso mission" in which the agency will attempt to bring an asteroid into Earth's orbit in order to study it. NASA officials say that exercise will be a crucial step toward traveling to Mars and could help Earth defend itself from an incoming asteroid, a notion that some, including Buzz Aldrin, have said is misguided.
"Bringing an asteroid back to Earth? What's that have to do with space exploration?" Aldrin said at a Mars Exploration conference in Washington, D.C. last month. "If we were moving outward from there and an asteroid is a good stopping point, then fine. But now it's turned into a whole planetary defense exercise at the cost of our outward exploration."