One flies a fighter jet for the Marines. Another is an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School. A third is a helicopter pilot for the Army. And the fourth leads the American Samoa station of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
They are the four women in NASA's latest class of astronaut trainees, which also includes four men. The eight recruits the first NASA has named in four years and the first group to include equal numbers of men and women were selected from 6,300 applicants and will start training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in August, the space agency said Monday.
If all goes well after a few years of training, one or more might be selected for a stint at the International Space Station, or eventually for a trip to an asteroid or Mars, places that NASA eventually hopes to visit.
"It's just so surreal that this moment has arrived," said Anne C. McClain, 34, the helicopter pilot, who is from Spokane, Wash., and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "I truly don't remember ever wanting to be something else."
She and the other recruits spoke in prerecorded video introductions that NASA shared as part of an online video conference. The agency did not make the trainees available for interviews.
NASA said that the new class, the agency's 21st, was the smallest group to date, chosen after a 1 1/2-year search from the largest applicant pool since 1978. Only 120 applicants were invited to come to the Johnson Space Center, where they underwent initial medical evaluations and an hourlong interview with the selection board. Forty-nine candidates were invited back for a second round of interviews as well as language aptitude tests, psychological evaluations and mechanical skills assessments.
Of the eight who were finally selected, five come from branches of the military and many of them hold multiple advanced degrees in physics, engineering, biology and medicine. Those who make it through two years of intense training will join NASA's existing corps of 49 astronauts, down from a peak of 149 in 2000. And the newcomers may then have to wait up to 10 years before their first spaceflight.
"With a smaller astronaut corps, fewer people in the office now, each person needs to have as diverse a background as possible," said Janet Kavandi, director of flight crew operations at Johnson Space Center, during the online video hosted on Google+ Hangout. "So we tried to work hard to make sure that the eight people we got had a broad spectrum of experiences."
The new class also has the highest percentage of female candidates, which NASA said was not intentional.
"I think it's actually just a reflection of how many really talented women are in the sciences and engineering these days," said Kathleen Rubins, a NASA astronaut from the class of 2009, in a telephone interview. "They're folks that have technical expertise in their chosen field, but they also bring a whole lot to the table" in their determination and ability to thrive under pressure.
The number of astronauts has dwindled along with the number of human space missions. NASA retired its space shuttle program two years ago and has been booking space for American astronauts on Russian Soyuz capsules since then. But commercial spaceflight companies are preparing to resume piloted American rocket launches, ideally in 2017, according to the goal date by NASA, which has supported the private efforts.
The eight new astronaut candidates will compete to be among "the first to launch from U.S. soil on commercial American spacecraft since the retirement of the space shuttle," NASA said in its announcement.
In addition to McClain, the women of the class of 2013 are Christina M. Hammock, 34, the NOAA station chief, of Jacksonville, N.C.; a Californian, Nicole Aunapu Mann, 35, the fighter pilot and a Marine Corps major, of Penngrove, Sonoma County; and Jessica U. Meir, 35, of Caribou, Maine, and Harvard Medical School.
The four men are: Josh A. Cassada, 39, a physicist and former naval aviator from White Bear Lake, Minn.; Victor J. Glover, 37, a pilot and Navy lieutenant commander from Pomona, Calif., and Prosper, Texas; Tyler N. Hague, 37, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, of Hoxie, Kan.; and Andrew R. Morgan, 37, a physician and an Army major, of New Castle, Pa.