NEW YORK – Children have dreamed of blasting off into space ever since the first moonwalk, and now a new generation of astronauts is looking to the stars, encouraged by President Bush's initiative to send man back up and on to Mars (search).
While sitting on a space shuttle may seem more thrilling than sitting at a desk, before you quit to apply for a profession where brains, brawn and a fearless attitude are only the preliminary requirements, heed the advice of some in the business.
"It's a completely unreasonable goal, it's a shot in the dark," said Lt. Col. Tim Kopra (search). "The advice that most of us give to friends is you have to like what you're doing because the odds of it happening are extremely remote."
But the odds didn't stop Kopra or the 102 other astronauts working today.
"I wanted to become an astronaut because I was inspired as a 6-year-old watching men walk on the moon," said Kopra. "Every kid my age wanted to be an astronaut, the only difference between me and those other kids is I never gave up on it."
The appeal of becoming an astronaut is something many college students can't deny, Dr. John Olds, associate professor in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech (search), said.
"We as Americans regard astronauts as American heroes. That kind of position and the opportunity to serve in that kind of role brings out the best in people, and everyone wants to be a hero," Olds said.
About one out of every three students Olds teaches say they want to be an astronaut, and he tries to encourage dreams while staying realistic.
"It's a long road," he said. "They will sometimes change their mind along the way. It's a maturing process when they realize exactly what it's going to take to do it and how selective the program is."
NASA (search) receives around 3,000 applications about every two years, each time they hold a selection for a class, said Duane Ross, astronaut candidate selection manager.
Out of the thousands, 100 will be interviewed and around 10 will become astronauts. With so many unknowns about the program's future such as how many will fly aboard the vehicle that will replace the shuttle, the number of new applicants needed is always fluctuating, Ross explained.
The astronaut class of 2004 will report to the Johnson Space Center (search) in August, earning a starting salary of approximately $80,000.
Reaching for the Stars
Kopra's astronaut ambitions came true when he was selected for NASA's class of 2000.
After attending West Point (search), Kopra served in the Army, earned a graduate degree at Georgia Tech and then attended test pilot school.
This career path was purposeful, he said. "I could see people who had become astronauts following the same path."
During the weeklong interview process, prospective astronauts go through physical and psychological exams, an orientation and tour of the space center. As students also have to write an essay about why they want to be an astronaut, those childhood dreams may prove helpful.
Kopra was 37 years old when he got the call to join 16 others picked to undergo basic training.
After around 15 months of initial training, astronauts each receive a technical job until they fly, all the while hitting the gym and studying to maintain proficiency for which they are tested annually.
Public appearances are also a big part of an astronaut's job and family time is a priority as well.
"It's a difficult balancing act. You have many divergent requirements and just have to do the best you can at each one," said Kopra.
Once you get your wings, don't start the countdown just yet. Ross said there are still a few astronauts from the class of 1996 who haven't flown. Next in line are 32 from the class of 1998 and 17 from the class of 2000.
"All of us understood that when we got selected in this group that it would be a long wait," said Kopra. "It's good to be patient if you're an astronaut."
Adventure Outweighs Risks
Seventeen astronauts have died in three separate tragedies during the space program's history: The Apollo 1 (search) spacecraft fire on the launch pad killed three in 1967, the Challenger (search) launch explosion killed seven in 1986 and the Columbia shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry on Feb. 1, killing the seven on board.
But the risks don't damper the passion of those in the program or those with the dream.
"We had some folks come by and interview students after the Columbia accident last year. They were asked, 'Do you still want to be an astronaut?' And every one of them said yes," said Olds.
The Columbia (search) disaster touched Kopra closely. "It's heart wrenching when you lose your co-workers and your friends but it definitely didn't impact my resolve to keep doing this and that's probably true for everyone here," he said. "No one came into this business thinking it was a risk-free venture."
Ross has been at NASA through two shuttle accidents and said they have a surprising effect on application flow. "The request for applications goes up 200 to 300 percent for the next month or so," he said.
The phenomenon baffles Ross, who said the only reasoning he can think of behind the spike is that even though the news is upsetting, it is prolific and people think about the program more.
Do You Have the Right Stuff?
Ross said applications come from a wide scope of interested parties, including educators, pilots, medical doctors and "everyone from kids in elementary school to octogenarians. We get the whole gamut."
Current astronaut ages vary from 26 to 46, but some common characteristics include: a graduate degree, flying experience (astronauts are required to earn 1,000 hours of jet-flying time if they want to pilot the shuttle) and most importantly they have to be "a nice person," said Ross, who asks himself, "Would I want to fly with this person?"
Additionally, astronauts have training time with Russian cosmonauts (search) and may spend time with them on the space station, so language lessons are another requirement.
Being in good shape is more essential than ever for astronauts, said Debbie Trainor, an astronaut-training specialist.
Shuttle missions are much more physically demanding, said Trainor, because each flight requires astronauts to space walk and conduct robotics work. "Some people may be very intelligent but they may not be able to hand the physical demands of a space walk."
Onward and Upward
Bush's initiative created a buzz in his classes, said Olds. "The students realize they are the ones given the opportunity to plan and lead us back to the moon. They are the ones that are going to have that responsibility and that is exciting to them."
Kopra said he was "psyched" when he heard the new plan. "Everyone was really pumped up...this is definitely the right thing to do and the right time...We needed a long term vision and that's exactly what we have now.
"Now that there's a new space initiative, it really energizes everybody to continue what we are doing, and get back to flight, continue building the space station and get back to the moon."