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Astronauts wanted

So you want to be an astronaut? For the first time in several years, NASA is putting out a job posting for astronaut candidates, including pilots, scientists and teachers. But what kind of spaceship will the Class of '09 astronauts fly? Almost certainly not the space shuttle.

Today's news release describes the employment opportunity:

"NASA is accepting applications for the 2009 Astronaut Candidate Class. Those selected could fly to space for long-duration stays on the international space station and missions to the moon.

"'We look forward to gathering applications and then being able to select from the largest pool possible,' said Ellen Ochoa, NASA's chief of Flight Crew Operations at the Johnson Space Center. 'Continuing our impressive record in successfully carrying out challenging human spaceflight missions depends on maintaining a talented and diverse astronaut corps.'

"To be considered, a bachelor's degree in engineering, science or math and three years of relevant professional experience are required. Typically, successful applicants have significant qualifications in engineering or science, or extensive experience flying high-performance jet aircraft.

"Teaching experience, including work at the kindergarten through 12th-grade level, is considered qualifying. Educators with the appropriate educational background are encouraged to apply.

"After a six-month period of evaluation and interviews, NASA will announce final selections in early 2009. Astronaut candidates will report to Johnson in the summer of 2009 to begin the basic training program to prepare them for future spaceflight assignments.

"NASA will accept applications through July 1, 2008. To apply visit:

http://www.usajobs.gov

"Additional information about the Astronaut Candidate Program is available by calling the Astronaut Selection Office at 281-483-5907 or by visiting:

http://www.nasa.gov/astronauts/recruit.html "

The last time NASA selected new astronaut candidates, or "ascans," was back in 2004, when 11 U.S. candidates and three international candidates were picked from thousands of applicants. NASA spokesman John Ira Petty told me that the agency would be looking for around 10 to 15 candidates this time around.

"That will depend on budget and how many [astronauts] we lose in the meantime through attrition," Petty said.

This time around, there won't be a special category for "educator astronauts," Petty said. Instead, teaching experience will be factored into the selection process, just as credentials in aviation or science are taken into account. International candidates may be added to the mix as well.

The USAJobs Web site notes that the pay ranges from $59,493 to $130,257, plus benefits. One of the benefits would be the chance to blast off into orbit and perhaps eventually to the moon and beyond - if NASA follows its updated schedule for space exploration.

That schedule also calls for the retirement of the shuttle fleet by 2010. Because it takes months if not years to prepare for a shuttle mission, the '09 recruits would almost certainly be out of the running for those final missions to build the space station. After 2010, NASA would turn its attention to the Orion crew exploration vehicle, which would not be flight-ready until the 2014 time frame.

That means post-2010 astronauts may well be riding on other people's spaceships for several years - perhaps a Russian Soyuz vehicle to the space station, or a privately developed spaceship like SpaceX's gumdrop-shaped Dragon craft. Who knows? Paying passengers may be going into orbit to visit Bigelow-built space modules before anyone in NASA's Class of '09 reaches outer space.