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Astronaut recruitment reaches stratospheric levels

Interest in the nation's space program is alive and well as NASA has received a record number of applications for its newest astronaut class.

The program, after announcing new recruiting last December, received more than 18,300 applications — three times the number it got in 2012, the last time it advertised for a new crop of space travelers, the agency said. By contrast, the previous record for applicants was 8,000, in 1978.

“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 Charlie 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.” 

NASA said it expects to whittle down the group by mid-2017. After culling the applications, the space agency will invite a group to interviews at its Johnson Space Center in Houston before its Astronaut Selection Board.

NASA, in December, said it sought a diverse group of candidates for its newest astronaut class, specifying backgrounds and bachelor's degrees (graduate degrees desirable) in computer science or math, physical science, computer science, biological science and engineering. Three years of professional experience or minimally 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time spent flying in a jet aircraft were also required. Also a requirement: passing NASA's "long duration" physical.

NASA's astronaut hiring program is overseen by the Office of Personnel Management.

Future astronauts who are selected in 2017 will have their choice of four options: serving on the International Space Station, on one of two corporately owned commercial crew spacecraft, now in development, or on the Orion, a deep-space exploration space craft set for trips to Mars.

“NASA is on an ambitious journey to Mars and we’re looking for talented men and women from diverse backgrounds and every walk of life to help get us there,” Bolden said.

The Obama administration had received criticism by some members of Congress for its budget and prioritization of the program's goals. After ending NASA's Constellation program in 2010, its replacement was uncertain until a new goal was set to make Mars the nation's next future target of exploration. Its newly defined policy was outlined in a bipartisan effort through the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, formulated the same year.

The Mars journey began with veteran astronaut Scott Kelly, 52, spending a yearlong mission commanding work on the International Space Station. He returned after 340 consecutive days in space on March 1, garnering positive publicity and heightened interest for NASA and future missions. He is set to retire in April.

Next up, scientists in the program will begin to head to deep space, collecting data from a group of rovers already on and around Mars, helping to lay the groundwork for future missions.

"Engineers and scientists around the country are working hard to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, and safely return home from the next giant leap for humanity," NASA said on its website, adding that a target date for Orion's first crewed flight to the red planet in 2021.