Handpicked from over 6,000 applicants, astronauts Christina M. Hammock, Nicole Aunapu Mann, Anne C. McClain, and Jessica U. Meir completed two years of intense training, mastering skills like T-38 supersonic jet piloting, negotiating tasks while submerged in deep water, and enduring rides in the "vomit comet," an aircraft that simulates weightlessness via free fall.
The women will now join NASA's existing 49-strong elite corps of astronauts, contributing specialized skills acquired through advanced degrees in biology and engineering as well as extensive, branch-diverse military experience. They are all also eligible to compete for a seat aboard NASA's first manned mission to Mars projected to launch in some 15 years.
Making up four out of the eight astronauts selected for the program, the women of NASA's class of 2013 mark the first time in the program's 55-year history that men and women have been equally represented. They are also a part of NASA's smallest group to date despite the agency receiving the largest number of applications since 1978-a detail Janet Kavandi, NASA's director of flight crew operations at Johnson Space Center in Houston attributes to the need for qualified candidates with diverse backgrounds and "a broad spectrum of experiences."
While women may possess certain biological advantages and bring unique skills and strengths to space travel, according to Kavandi, the women were not chosen for their gender. "We never determine how many people of each gender we're going to take, but these were the most qualified people of the ones that we interviewed," Kavandi said following NASA's announcement of the 2013 class. "They earned every bit the right to be there."
"From space, you can't see borders," said McClain. "What you see is this lonely planet. Here we all are on it, so angry at one another. I wish more people could step back and see how small earth is, and how reliant we are on one another."
Media Resources: New York Times 6/18/13, 1/11/16; PBS NewsHour 11/20/14; Space.com 6/18/13