NASA is hanging out its help-wanted sign. The space agency wants to hire 10 to 15 people to become astronaut candidates.
It will train them to live on the International Space Station and perhaps also in a lunar habitat when NASA returns to the moon.
Candidates need to have at least a bachelor's degree in engineering, science or math and three years of relevant professional experience. Extensive experience flying high-performance jet aircraft is a plus and teachers are encouraged to apply.
Thousands do, but few are chosen. Just ask astronaut Clay Anderson. He applied 15 times.
"Mentally it was hard to get that little card that said, 'Thanks, we got your application, but we didn't select you,'" Anderson said. "I wish I would have saved all those cards. But to do the updates was easy. I just kept a file, and each year I'd update what needed to be updated and send it off. And as I did that, every year, I'd look at my resume and think, 'Well, what have I done spectacular or new that's going to set me apart from the other guys?'"
Anderson was selected in 1998 and trained for nine years before he was assigned to his first flight. He is now a member of Expedition 15, the crew currently living on the International Space Station.
Stephanie Wilson has flown once, on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006, and is scheduled for her second flight later this year. She is a highly accomplished scientist with degrees from Harvard and the University of Texas. She worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on attitude and control systems for the Galileo mission, a robotic ship that orbited Jupiter.
Wilson was rejected the first time she applied to be an astronaut. Her biggest hurdle? Swimming.
"I could swim, but I could not do very specific strokes. I could tread a little bit; I just didn't know specific strokes. You have to demonstrate three specific strokes, and be able to tread water with no hands for a long time. Either you know how to swim or you don't, and I had to make sure I could pass the swim test as an astronaut candidate."
Wilson hired a swim coach and began a crash course. She was accepted as an astronaut the second time she applied and passed all the NASA survival classes.
NASA likes to mix experienced and rookie astronauts on a flight. Rookie astronaut Doug Wheelock is grateful. He is on the same crew this fall with Wilson and says he sometimes has to pinch himself because he is so excited about the prospect of flying into space.
"I know there are thousands of qualified candidates, and I am glad NASA thought I had something to contribute. I want to do my best to memorize every moment of my mission, and to share the experience with others when I return from space."
NASA has 91 active astronauts, 15 of whom have yet to fly. There are 14 space shuttle missions remaining before the fleet is scheduled to be retired in 2010.
After that? NASA's new ship, named Orion, should be carrying astronauts to the moon by 2020. It's a long wait, so they'll need to be as persistent as they were as applicants.