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NASA introduces class of 10 new astronaut candidates

  • >> Joey Roulette, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-12-07 12:39:09 BdST

NASA announced its new astronaut candidate class on Dec 6, 2021. Photographed at Johnson Space Center in Houston on Dec 3, 2021 they are, from left: Nichole Ayers, Christopher Williams, Luke Delaney, Jessica Wittner, Anil Menon, Marcos Berríos, Jack Hathaway, Christina Birch, Deniz Burnham and Andre Douglas. Robert Markowitz/NASA via The New York Times

NASA on Monday inaugurated 10 new astronaut candidates who could walk on the moon within the next decade or carry out research on the International Space Station.

The new astronaut candidate class is NASA’s 23rd since 1959, when seven astronauts were picked by the military for Project Mercury, the first US human spaceflight program. The latest astronaut candidate group comes as NASA prepares for its most daunting challenges in space since Americans landed on the moon during the Apollo program of the 1960s and ’70s. The agency’s growing focus is on Artemis, its program to return astronauts to the moon.

“Today we welcome 10 new explorers, 10 members of the Artemis generation,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said on a stage during an indoor ceremony at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, near NASA’s astronaut headquarters, the Johnson Space Center. The remarks of Nelson and other speakers were interrupted a few times by a heavy thunderstorm outdoors.

“Alone, each of these candidates certainly has the right stuff, but together, they represent exactly the creed of our country — e pluribus unum — out of many, one,” Nelson added.

The 10 astronaut candidates for 2021 are:

— Nichole Ayers, Divide, Colorado

— Marcos Berríos, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico

— Christina Birch, Gilbert, Arizona

— Deniz Burnham, Wasilla, Alaska

— Luke Delaney, DeBary, Florida

— Andre Douglas, Chesapeake, Virginia

— Jack Hathaway, South Windsor, Connecticut

— Anil Menon, Minneapolis

— Christopher Williams, Potomac, Maryland

— Jessica Wittner, Clovis, California

Most of the candidates have backgrounds in the US Armed Forces, including several Air Force and Navy pilots. Menon has served as SpaceX’s medical director, overseeing the medical conditions of astronauts who fly on Crew Dragon, the capsule that ferries American astronauts to the space station. Birch, a bioengineer, was a track cyclist during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Williams, a medical physicist, has been involved in cancer treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Nelson also announced that two people from the United Arab Emirates, Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammad Al Mulla, will train with the NASA astronaut candidates.

During the event, some of the astronaut recruits were asked what spaceflight assignment they hope to receive. “Any mission that I can be assigned to,” said Berríos, an Air Force test pilot, before proposing another idea.

“I think it would be great if NASA could scale up the Ingenuity helicopter that’s currently flying on Mars to maybe fit two people,” he said. The robotic device, which is about the size of a softball with spindly legs sticking out, has completed 16 flights on the red planet since arriving there in February.

Berríos said that he and Burnham, also a helicopter pilot, “would love to take it for a spin — for science,” sparking laughter from the audience, a mix of the astronaut candidates’ families, lawmakers and NASA employees.

About 12,000 people submitted applications for this year’s group. The new astronaut candidates are being sworn in during a surge in human spaceflight activity, with wealthy tourists and private astronauts more frequently launching to space aboard both government and privately owned spacecraft.

On Wednesday, Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, and a film producer will launch on a Russian rocket to the International Space Station as tourists for 12 days. And a day later, Blue Origin, the space company owned by Jeff Bezos, will send six passengers, including Michael Strahan, the TV host and former New York Giants defensive end, on a brief jaunt to the edge of space.

After Monday’s ceremony, the astronauts will begin two years of astronaut training at the Johnson Space Center, where they’ll learn to conduct spacewalks outside of the space station as well as the ins and outs of new commercial spacecraft, among hundreds of other tasks expected of government astronauts. After graduating from training, they could get assignments to spend months on the space station or walk on the moon under NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to conduct its first crewed moon landing in 2025.

The astronauts were picked according to a set of rigorous requirements that includes a master’s degree in a science, technology, engineering or math field; an accredited test-pilot school program or two years of academic work toward a doctoral program related to an astronaut’s duties.

Other space agencies are changing their application requirements to tap into a broader pool of potential astronauts. Japan’s space agency, JAXA, announced in November that it would recruit its first group of seven astronauts in 13 years. The agency dropped its requirement that applicants have a four-year university degree in the field of natural science, according to NHK, Japan’s state-owned broadcasting network. The European Space Agency also began its next round of astronaut recruitment in February. In its announcement, it said it aimed to diversify its pool of candidates to include more women as well as people with disabilities.

NASA’s last astronaut class was inducted in 2017. Two of its members, Raja Chari and Kayla Barron, are currently in space aboard the International Space Station. They and other members of that class, the 22nd, could also be eligible for trips to the moon.

©2021 The New York Times Company