“When I was [younger] I used to see the space shuttle taking off on TV all the time…To me that was the coolest thing, and I wanted to be a part of it,” reminisced Anne McClain, a member of NASA’s newest class of astronaut candidates. The group of eight pilots, doctors, and military officers is the first batch of astronauts picked in four years, and one of the smallest classes ever. They gathered for an event at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum yesterday as part of a short tour that included stops at the White House and other NASA centers to promote human space travel and STEM education.
Like McClain, an Army major and helicopter test pilot with multiple degrees, the other seven candidates boast an impressive list of qualifications and skills. Josh Cassada is a Navy pilot and physicist. Christina Hammock, an oceanographer, is the NOAA Station Chief in American Samoa. Victor Glover is both a test pilot and a Congressional legislative fellow for the Navy. Tyler Hague, an Air Force test pilot, also serves as a deputy chief for the Department of Defense’s anti-IED efforts. Rounding out the group is Nicole Mann, a Marine test pilot, Jessica Meir, an oceanographer and physician, and Andrew Morgan, an Army flight surgeon.
On stage at the museum in front of a largely young audience from nearby D.C. schools, the candidates talked about their pasts and what influenced them to pursue a career at NASA. “We used to have National Geographic magazines around the house…and I would tear out the pictures that interested me most. So on my wall in my bedroom…there were all these pictures of space,” said Hammock. Hague described some of the training that the astronaut candidates have to go through. Beside getting in peak physical shape, the candidates must learn how to speak Russian, because they “have to train in Russia and potentially fly up to the station on a Russian spacecraft.” Each candidate will be trained over the next 18 months to spacewalk in NASA Johnson’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory – a large indoor pool – and to fly NASA’s T-38 trainer jets.
Students in the audience took advantage of the Q&A session to ask advice on how to follow in the astronaut’s footsteps -- including what colleges to go to -- but the real treat was the call from low Earth orbit. Expedition 38 crewmembers Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio video-phoned in from the space station to share their experience on what it’s like to live in zero gravity and perform research on the space frontier.