Stiff competition for NASA's next astronaut class

January 30, 2012 10:08:53 AM PST
NASA is looking for a dozen dreamers -- Americans willing to sign up for space missions the country hasn't planned yet.

At 10pm Friday, the application deadline closed for the new astronaut class.

Winning a spot in this new astronaut class is a little like getting a great sports car but not having money to buy gas. While NASA says this group of astronauts will work on getting towards Mars, that's a check Congress hasn't written yet.

Nonetheless, a huge group of people are competing for that chance. More than 5,000 applicants are vying for just 12 spots, but at hundreds of thousands of dollars per astronaut just in training, why do it now?

For so many of us, the landing of the shuttle seemed like the end. The last American ride to space had been flown. America's space dream, if not over, certainly looked like it was ending.

But Ben Longmier, a real life rocket scientist, is one of more than 5,000 Americans still willing to dream. He's part of the second largest group ever to apply to become a new NASA astronaut.

"Of course I would love to go to farther into deep space. I would like that very much but it really would be enough to go and do research on the space station. That would be ideal for me," Longmier said.

"I assume it means that they believe we're going to fly in space, which we are," Duane Ross said.

Ross is a believer. He should be. He manages the application process. Peggy Whitson is NASA's chief astronaut.

"We do need astronauts to be selected in 2013, so that I will have them ready for assignment in 2015," Whitson said.

It may seem like a waste of time, money and talent to hire a dozen more space fliers. But NASA's always been optimistic and patient, and it takes years to turn a rocket scientist in to an astronaut.

"We're picking people for now. We're picking them for a requirement that we can't exactly predict five to seven years downstream. One bad thing you can do is not have enough people to go get on the spaceship and we want to make sure that we don't get in that position," Ross said.

The new class won't be picked until next spring. Any one applicant's chance is less than one quarter of one percent.

"People say that it's easier to be a pro athlete than an astronaut and statistically that's right, the numbers work out that way," Longmier said.

Ross admits to thinking more than once that he's picked America's last astronauts and then NASA asks him to pick more.

"Are you a dream maker?" we asked Ross.

"Yeah, I guess. Unfortunately, I am more often a dream dasher, but we try to make a few dreams come true," he replied.

This is the second largest group of applicants. The largest was in 1978 just before NASA had another huge change and flew the shuttle for the first time.

If you want to apply, make sure you're in great health, have a college degree in engineering, science or math and fill out the application.