It seems like science fiction writer Robert Heinlein could have summed up NASA's job announcement in his young adult novel, Have Space Suit, Will Travel. While the novel's characters visit a galaxy about 200,000 light years away, NASA is looking for real astronauts who'd be willing to leg it to Mars. Heinlein himself could have written the recruitment ad:
If you have dreamed of joining the Astronaut Corps, now is the time to apply. NASA is continuing space exploration programs that will include missions beyond low Earth orbit
The space agency says it wants to go to Mars, and in its recruitment video, there's an artist's rendering of dust devils spinning across the Red Planet's surface.
Starry dreams aside, NASA is looking for people with advanced degrees in engineering, math, biology or the physical sciences. You can't be shorter than 5'2" or taller than 6'3". Pilots with more than 1,000 hours of flight time are desired; so are educators. Speaking Russian is probably a plus, since astronauts are now ferried into orbit aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft because the U.S. space shuttle program is shuttered. And, as the ad says, you'll need "a sense of daring" and "a probing mind".
Competition will probably be tough since NASA says it will only pick between nine and 15 recruits who won't be named until the spring of 2013.
There are about 60 active astronauts but only a handful blast off into space each year. So why hire more? This fall, an expert panel advised NASA to hire more astronauts. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reported the space agency needs to make sure it has a good mix of people:
"The report cites recent examples of NASA already having trouble in finding the right replacement astronaut in a pinch — for example, after one astronaut assigned to a shuttle mission experienced a serious bicycle injury. "This incident highlights that the Astronaut Corps is approaching a point where it lacks sufficient margin required to deal with unexpected personnel situations," the report notes."
Nell adds when astronauts return from lengthy visits aboard the International Space Station, they might not be able to return to space for medical reasons. Astronauts are always needed in Mission Control to help those aloft. And new astronauts may be able to fly into space in a commercial vehicle: Boeing is building the Crew Space Transportation-100 vehicle in an old space shuttle hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The international space station might not be the only destination. Financier Robert Bigelow doesn't have the vehicle to get into orbit, but he's tested two prototypes for his proposed Bigelow Space Complex. He'll need well-trained astronauts to staff it.
The announcement comes as former astronauts John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were honored today by Congress with the Congressional Gold Medal. As the Los Angeles Times reports, when Glenn received his medal, he repeated a statement he first gave after returning from his historic space flight: "As our knowledge of the universe in which we live increases, may God grant us the wisdom and guidance to use it wisely."