ABC News' Gina Sunseri Reports:
HOUSTON - Tonight is the deadline for applications for the next astronaut class. It's a leap of faith because there is no great space race anymore and Newt Gingrich is the only candidate who even mentions a future in space for the U.S.
Nevertheless, NASA said that as of midday today, it had received 5,100 applications, more than ever before. Only about a dozen new astronauts will be chosen.
NASA is building a capsule called Orion, and the rocket to launch it remains to be determined. It could be a Delta or a Falcon, or a new NASA rocket on steroids called the SLS (Space Launch System).
The astronauts are all dressed up with no place to go because until the president and Congress agree on a new mission for them, the only game in town is the International Space Station, which veterans privately say ranks as one of the most boring missions on the books. The ISS has a crew of six, all launched, for now, in Russian Soyuz capsules. Between them, the crew members only do 35 hours of research a week; the rest of the time is spent maintaining their orbiting colony.
NASA's most ambitious mission, at the moment, is the robotic Mars Curiosity Rover - no astronauts needed - which is humming along to Mars to land in August.
What would an astronaut even have to look forward to besides fixing the toilet on the space station? They have no hot showers, no pizza, no ice cream. A stiff drink? Forget about it. But the view is great, and they have Internet now on the space station. The benefits are fabulous (lifetime health care - the perks of being a human guinea pig for NASA, which wants to know about vision loss, muscle mass loss, decreased bone density and radiation exposure).
Salaries for civilian astronaut candidates are based on the federal government's general schedule pay scale for grades GS-12 through GS-13. Each person's grade is determined according to his or her academic achievements and experience. Currently, a GS-12 starts at $65,140 per year and a GS-13 can earn up to $100,701 per year.
Military astronaut candidates are assigned to the Johnson Space Center and remain on active duty status for pay, benefits, leave and other similar matters.
NASA currently has 57 active astronauts. It says it needs more because a person can only stay in space six months at a time. After that, you exceed the allowable limits for radiation exposure, and it takes months to recover from a tour of duty on the space station. Not every astronaut is willing to commit to the three years it takes to train for a mission to the ISS. So they are having a tough time staffing the space station.
Here's where to apply: http://astronauts.nasa.gov/ If you think you have the right stuff.