NASA Hired Its First New Class of Astronauts in Years to Help Get to Mars

6-7-17 Astronauts 2017 class
The 2017 NASA Astronaut Class: (from left) Zena Cardman, Jasmin Moghbeli, Jonny Kim, Frank Rubio, Matthew Dominick, Warren Hoburg, Robb Kulin, Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, Raji Chari, Loral O' Hara and Jessica Watkins. Robert Markowitz/NASA

There are 12 new “astronaut candidates” whose dreams of going to space have just come within reach. NASA officially introduced its 2017 class of astronauts on Wednesday afternoon in a briefing from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“Kids still look up to the heavens and go, ‘Man, I could be an astronaut one day, I could be up there.’ You guys epitomize that,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot to an audience that included Vice President Mike Pence, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the new astronaut candidates' families. “Like the crews before, you will inspire folks, you will inspire the next generation to come in after you and take it on. What you see today behind me is our future,” he added. “One of these folks behind us could be the one who takes that next iconic giant leap…and brings the entire NASA family and the entire world with them.”

The agency received a record number of applications in response to its latest call for aspiring astronauts, with more than 18,300 hopefuls submitting their materials between December 2015 and February 2016. That’s about three times as many applications as NASA got when it was recruiting for its previous astronaut class about four years earlier and more than twice the previous record set in 1978 with 8,000 applications. With only a dozen ultimately selected from that enormous pool, the acceptance rate for this crop of space explorers comes out to just 0.07 percent.

Related: Want to be an astronaut? NASA is more selective than any top college

The handful of men and women who made it through the grueling selection process will have a couple of months to make arrangements to move to Houston with their families. They are due to report to Johnson in August to begin two years of training that will make them eligible for spaceflight assignments. They join 44 active NASA astronauts. Only 338 men and women have ever held the title.

The group of 12 “astronaut candidates” introduced on Wednesday includes seven men and five women with backgrounds in science, engineering, medicine, math and military. Here are some basic details:

Kayla Barron, 29, from Richland, Washington, is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy with a bachelor’s in systems engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and a master’s in nuclear engineering from the University of Cambridge.

Zena Cardman, 29, from Williamsburg, Virginia, is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. She has a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in Marine Science from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is working on her Ph.D. in geosciences at Pennsylvania State University.

Raja Chari, 39, from Cedar Falls, Iowa, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He has a bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering and engineering science from the U.S. Air Force Academy and a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He also graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.

Matthew Dominick, 35, from Wheat Ridge, Colorado, is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy. He has a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the University of San Diego and a master’s in systems engineering from the Naval Post Graduate School. He’s a graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.

Bob Hines, 42, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a research pilot at NASA Johnson Space Center. He has a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from Boston University and a master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama. He’s a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.

Warren “Woody” Hoburg, 31, from Pittsburgh, is a private pilot and an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, where he earned his bachelor’s in the same field. He has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Jonny Kim, 33, from Los Angeles, is a resident physician in emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. He has a bachelor’s in mathematics from the University of San Diego and his M.D. from Harvard Medical School.  

Robb Kulin, 33, from Anchorage, Alaska, is a launch chief engineer at SpaceX. He has a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Denver and a master’s in materials science and PhD in engineering from the University of California, San Diego.

Jasmin Moghbeli, 33, from Baldwin, New York, is a major in the U.S. Marines. She has a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering with information technology from MIT and a master’s in aerospace engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. She’s a graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.

Loral O'Hara, 34, from Sugar Land, Texas, is a research engineer at Woods HOle Oceanographic Institution. She has a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Kansas and a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics from Purdue University.

Frank Rubio, 41, from Miami, is a major in the U.S. Army with over 1,100 hours of flight time as a Black Hawk pilot. He has a bachelor’s in international relations from the United States Military Academy and earned his M.D. from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

Jessica Watkins, 29, from Lafayette, Colorado, is a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology. She has a bachelor’s in geological and environmental sciences from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Geology from the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I can’t tell you how privileged and honored I feel today to be able to congratulate the newest class of American heroes, the 2017 class of America’s astronauts,” said Pence, who was in attendance to welcome the new class of astronaut candidates, as well as to tour the mission control center and sit for briefings about current human spaceflight operations. “These are 12 men and women whose personal excellence and personal courage will carry our nation to even greater heights and discovery,” he added. “Your president is proud of you and so am I.”

In early May, President Donald Trump signed an appropriations act to finalize 2017 government funding. NASA received $19.65 billion with $1.846 billion allotted to the Planetary Science Division, which includes the Mars Exploration Program and others. Those numbers represented NASA’s biggest budget since 2010 and the best budget for planetary science in over a decade, according to an analysis from the Planetary Society (a nonprofit headed by Bill Nye). The agency also fared relatively well in Trump’s fleshed out 2018 budget request, which was released later the same month but has yet to be approved by Congress. The proposed total budget for the agency is $19.1 billion, a three percent reduction from 2017, with $1.93 billion for planetary science, a record for the division.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Pence spoke of his lifelong admiration for NASA. He recounted how he caught “space fever” as a young boy in a small town in southern Indiana, watching the milestones of the space program on black-and-white television with his family. He spoke, too, about Trump’s commitment to the American space program, which includes relaunching the National Space Council as a federal body charged with advising the president to “ensure that America never again loses our lead in space exploration, innovation, and technology." Pence will serve as its chair.

“Under President Donald Trump, America will lead in space once again, and the world will marvel,” Pence said. "The United States will usher in a new era of space exploration that will benefit every facet of our national life,” he added. “We will win.”