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Astronaut Scott Kelly
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly snaps a selfie during a spacewalk at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

You think it’s hard to get into Harvard? Try making an impression when you’re among the record-high group of 18,300 people who applied to be an astronaut.

NASA says that tally is three times as high as the number who applied the last time the space agency put out the call, for the Class of 2013. And it far exceeds the previous record of 8,000 applications, set in 1978 during the buildup to the space shuttle program.

Now that the application deadline has passed, NASA’s Astronaut Selection Board will have to winnow through the pile. The space agency expects to choose somewhere between eight and 14 astronaut candidates for the Class of 2017. That means the acceptance rate will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.05 percent, compared to a 6 percent rate for Harvard.

“We have our work cut out for us with this many applications,” Brian Kelly, director of flight operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, acknowledged Friday in a news release. “But it’s heartening to know so many people recognize what a great opportunity this is to be part of NASA’s exciting mission. I look forward to meeting the men and women talented enough to rise to the top of what is always a pool of incredible applicants.”

Kelly and his colleagues will go through the applications, pick the top choices for in-person interviews at Johnson, and announce their choices for astronaut training in mid-2017. The Class of 2017 may be among the first astronauts to fly beyond Earth orbit on NASA’s Orion crew vehicle in the 2020s.

“It’s not at all surprising to me that so many Americans from diverse backgrounds want to personally contribute to blazing the trail on our journey to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said.

There may be a couple of other reasons why the strong response isn’t surprising: The job opportunity was heavily promoted through NASA’s social-media channels, for one thing. Astronauts have been getting good media exposure in movies like “The Martian,” “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” for another. And if you’re an able-bodied scientist with an interest in the great beyond, why wouldn’t you apply?

Check out a few of the tweets musing seriously (and not so seriously) on the astronaut applicant avalanche:

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