Meet NASA's New Class of Astronauts, The "8-Balls"

By Norman Chan

One of these eight people may eventually be assigned to a mission to Mars.

This past Tuesday, NASA officially introduced the 2013 class of Astronaut candidates, who now embark on a two-year training program at Johnson Space Center before possible assignment on missions to space. This class of eight, nicknamed the "8-Balls", is comprised of four men and four women--the highest percentage of female trainees of any astronaut class in NASA history. Their ranks include a US Marine Corps pilot, US Army flight surgeon, a physicist, and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School--a very diverse vocational background that suits NASA's specific needs and criteria. They join NASA's existing corps of 47 active astronauts, all of whom are acutely aware of NASA's ambitions to return to the moon and send a crew to a near-Earth asteroid, all in preparation for an eventual trip to Mars. That means that one of these astronauts-in-training may eventually be one of the first humans to step foot on the Red Planet.

So how does one become a NASA astronaut? The selection process, as you may expect, is rigorous and time-consuming. NASA has only selected 21 groups of astronauts in its history, beginning with The Mercury 7 in 1959. Selection for Group 21 began at the end of 2011 when vacancy announcements were made on the US Federal Goverment's official jobs site. Over 6,300 applications were received, the second most submitted to NASA after the year leading up to the Space Shuttle program.

According to the NASA website, applicants can only qualify if they hold US citizenship, have at least 1,000 hours piloting an aircraft (or at least three years of professional work experience), and hold a degree in engineering, biological or physical science, or mathematics. The also have to meet specific physical requirements, including being taller than 5'2" and at most 6'3". Highly qualified applicants are brought in to Houston JSC for interviews, physical evaluation, and more tests. According to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover of the 8-Balls class, those tests included lots of writing, even including asking finalists to compose a limerick, haiku, or tweet.

The ability to tweet well may be an important skill for this next generation of astronauts, given the renewed celebrity nature of space explorers. Cmdr. Chris Hadfield's success in social media and public relations redefined our expectations of the astronaut persona--the current crew of the International Space Station are following in his lead of producing educational videos from space. This is a new era of the astronaut-celebrity; astronauts are as much pop culture stars as they are scientists. In fact, NASA's Group 21 class photo can't help but remind me of those promotional photos for new television shows--a cast of personalities that we'll be seeing in years to come. I can't wait to follow along on their adventures in space.

(Check out photos from our visit to NASA Johnson Space Center here.)