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Astronaut in orbit
NASA says it will take astronaut applications starting next month. (NASA photo)

NASA is opening its doors to recruit a fresh batch of astronauts – and by the time the candidates finish training, they just might be able to ride shiny new space taxis into orbit.

Today the space agency said it would start taking applications on Dec. 14 for its next class of astronaut candidates. Applications will be accepted via through mid-February, and selections are to be announced in mid-2017.

That’s close to the time when Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon V2 are expected to start ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, representing the first crewed spaceships to be launched into orbit from U.S. soil since the shuttle fleet retired in 2011.

The last time NASA put out the call for new astronauts, in 2012, more than 6,300 applied. Just eight were selected – four women and four men. Back in 1999, there were 150 active astronauts in NASA’s corps, but by the time the shuttles went out of service, the number had fallen to 61. That reduction, which was due to retirements and other departures during the shuttles’ sunset days, sparked concern from the National Research Council that there would be too few experienced astronauts available for NASA’s next era of exploration.

Since then, the number has fallen even lower, to 47 active astronauts.

NASA says astronaut candidates must have at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or math, plus at least three years of relevant professional experience – or at least 1,000 hours of piloting time in jet aircraft. They’ll also have to pass NASA’s physical for long-duration spaceflight.

If NASA sticks to its schedule, the astronauts selected in 2017 may well be in the mix for missions to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. Those flights could make use of NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration vehicle and heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, which are due to be ready for crews starting in the 2021-2023 time frame.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden played the Mars card today in his come-on for would-be applicants: “This next group of American space explorers will inspire the Mars generation to reach for new heights, and help us realize the goal of putting boot prints on the Red Planet,” he said in a statement.

But by the 2030s, private-sector spacecraft may well be heading for the Red Planet as well. SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, has talked about developing a rocket-powered system that could eventually bring thousands of settlers to Mars.

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