Record 18,300 Apply for NASA Astronaut Training
Astronaut Carlos I. Noriega, mission specialist, waves during the second of three spacewalks on STS-97 in 2000.
Image: Scott Kelly and other members of the Expedition 45 crew watch "The Martian" on the International Space Station. Credit: Scott Kelly (Twitter)
Scott Kelly is a NASA astronaut working for a year in space on the International Space Station. Does he have the stuff of "The Martian,"the highly anticipated Matt Damon movie to be released on Oct. 2
, chronicling the life of a stranded astronaut on the surface of Mars? While Kelly certainly isn't on his own in space, much of the work he is doing would be useful for a trip to Mars. Here are some of the things the astronaut is working on that Mark Watney (Damon's character in "The Martian") would appreciate.MORE: NASA's Ultimate Space Twin Experiment
Image: An aurora that Scott Kelly and crewmates observed from the International Space Station in September 2015. Credit: Scott Kelly (Twitter)
The sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity, and we are just past the peak of one of those cycles. The solar peak is a time when the sun unleashes more flares and coronal mass ejections (charged particles). When these particles hit the Earth's magnetic field, they can produce spectacular auroras.But they also can give astronauts a higher dose of radiation.
The space station monitors radiation levels for astronauts close to Earth; in fact, one of the reasons Kelly was selected for this mission was he did not exceed the lifetime radiation levels allowed for astronauts. Radiation is expected to jump for those travelling outside of Earth's magnetic influence. Mars doesn't have much magnetic field to speak of, and the Curiosity mission is monitoring radiation levels on the surface to get more information for future human missions.MORE: Killer Radiation: How to Protect Martian Astronauts
Image: Scott Kelly frequently tweets pictures of Earth observations. Many astronauts have cited looking at our planet as a psychological boost during long missions. Credit: Scott Kelly (Twitter)
Working in space is a harsh business. You're busy all the time, you're stuck in a small environment with several people, and your family and friends are far away. NASA keeps close tabs on its astronauts' psychological health through measures such as doctor calls with astronauts, andhaving the astronauts keep journals
during their missions. This will especially be important for Mars, as astronauts will need to be even more self-sufficient due to the time delay in communications between planets. NASA hasan ongoing comm delays study
for astronauts doing simple tasks; these tasks and their effects on astronauts will be studied as the station work continues.MORE: Space Radiation May Harm Astronauts' Brains
Image: Kelly responds to health questions via Twitter.
Microgravity is hard on your body. NASA has its astronauts exercise for a couple of hours a day, which seems to help counteract bone loss for missions of six months. But what about a year, or longer? That's part of what Kelly's mission is supposed to answer. Bones aren't the only things to worry about, either. Muscles shrink, eye pressure increases, your sense of balance changes. Even your immune system may be affected, something thatNASA is also looking at
in detail. So while we think of astronauts as boldly doing spacewalks and experiments on station, understand that they are also part of the experiment. Their very health is being watched for the benefit of future space missions.MORE: Space Missions Turn Astronauts' Hearts Spherical
Image: Scott Kelly poses next to a group of fruit in August 2015. Credit: Scott Kelly (Twitter)
While Watney develops a certain affection for potatoes, Kelly recently posted a picture of himself looking pretty pleased next to a floating pile of fruit. It turns out that little comforts do go a long way for astronaut morale, and any nutritionist would tell you that a varied diet of healthy foods is good for you -- not just the freeze-dried stuff the Apollo astronauts survived on during their missions. NASA has an experiment in place to see how wellastronauts are meeting nutritional requirements for their work on station
, and also for their long-term health.MORE: Real NASA Space Tech in 'The Martian'
Image: The space station crew sample ISS-grown lettuce for the first time in August. Credit: NASA
Astronauts are very tied to shipments from Earth right now in terms of eating ... but that is changing in a small way.Thanks to an experiment called Veggie
, astronauts got to taste some food grown aboard the space station this summer. Lettuce, of course, does not an entire meal make. But as the movie Contact (1997) reminds us, it's through "small moves" that we learn about science. The hope is eventually this experiment will translate into a better way of harvesting crops beyond Earth. For Mars, we're even wondering how viable the soil could be to support plants.MORE: 'Smart' LED Farming Could Make Space Veg Viable
Image: Kelly in a module of the International Space Station. Credit: Scott Kelly (Twitter)
"#ILookLikeAnEngineer on @space_station. Also a scientist, medical officer, farmer & at times a plumber," Kelly wrote with this image in August. What's more, he has to do all those things in a small space. Since every pound hoisted to space costs money, astronauts are accustomed to working in claustrophobic quarters. But NASA, concerned about its astronauts' efficiency and happiness, also has anexperiment that is supposed to look at how best to construct a living space for astronauts
. That way, the habitats designed for Mars will be suitable for long-term living.MORE: Why 'Space Madness' Fears Haunted NASA's Past
Image: Scott Kelly, right, in 2011 with the Russian astronauts Oleg Skripochka, left, and Aleksandr Kaleri after six months aboard the International Space Station. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA
During a recent Twitter chat, Kelly was asked if he wanted to go to Mars. He said yes, as long as he could return. Getting to Mars and back will take hundreds of days of transportation, let alone the time on the surface. The gravity on Mars is less than 40% what we experience here on Earth. And unless spacecraft design changes substantially, the astronauts will be in microgravity on the way there and back. NASA has an experiment to seehow well (or badly) astronauts work on the surface shortly after landing
, an experiment that Kelly is participating in. This will be important not only for returning to Earth, but seeing how well a crew can get adapted to Mars after being in microgravity for the transit.MORE: 3D-Printed Bubble House Made for Mars
More than 18,300 people have applied for 14 or fewer spots in NASA's next astronaut class, shattering the 1978 record of 8,000 applicants.
(In 1978, it had been nine years since the previous chance to apply to be an astronaut, and the space shuttle had recently been announced. Plus, it was the first official call for female applicants.)
The prospective astronauts all submitted their applications between Dec.14 and when the application period closed yesterday (Feb. 18) — and the total number is close to triple the applicants for NASA's most recent astronaut class, in 2012. (At the time, the 2012 application pool was the second largest ever at more than 6,300.) [Related: How To Become An Astronaut]
"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 Charles Bolden 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 U.S. soil on American-made spacecraft."
Bolden himself is a former astronaut, selected as one of a class of 19 in 1980.
Over the next 18 months, NASA's astronaut-selection board will narrow the applicants down, and the top applicants will interview at Johnson Space Center in Houston — ultimately, NASA will select a final set of eight to 14 astronaut candidates to begin training.
The training process will take about two years, and will include "training on spacecraft systems, spacewalking skills and teamwork, Russian language and other requisite skills," NASA officials said in the statement.
Ultimately, those who make it through the training will be assigned to either the International Space Station, NASA's Orion spacecraft, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner or the SpaceX Crew Dragon. Orion, currently in development to launch in the early 2020s on the new Space Launch System megarocket, will be able to support a crew of four for up to 21 days — habitat modules will be added for longer journeys, such as visiting Mars or deep space. Both the Starliner and Crew Dragon are in development aided by NASA's commercial crew program to bring four astronauts to the space station at a time.
But first, NASA's astronaut-selection board has its hands full choosing the most qualified candidates from the enormous pool of astronaut hopefuls for the 2017 astronaut class.
"We have our work cut out for us with this many applications," Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at Johnson Space Center, said in the statement. "But it's heartening to know so many people recognize what a great opportunity this is to be part of NASA's exciting mission. I look forward to meeting the men and women talented enough to rise to the top of what is always a pool of incredible applicants."