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NASA's new astronaut class marks changing of guard for US spaceflight (+video)

NASA named its first new astronauts in four years Monday. Of the eight new recruits, four are women, and all are members of the 'space shuttle generation.'

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The new class also represents the first to host an even split between men and women – a fitting, if purportedly unintentional nod to Sunday's 50th anniversary of the first woman to reach space, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who orbited Earth 48 times before reentering.

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"We never determine how many people of each gender we're going to take," said Janet Kavandi, an astronaut and director of flight-crew operations at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, during a briefing Monday to introduce the new candidates. "These were the most qualified people of the ones we interviewed."

The even split "is a great tribute to women today. They are going into fields that are much more demanding," which puts them on an equal footing with male candidates, Dr. Kavandi said.

For all its generational break with the past, the new class carries echoes of the astronaut corps' early days through the beginning of the shuttle program, when a premium was placed on test-pilot experience because each new step along the way involved building and testing new spacecraft. Today, NASA is embarked on building a new launch system, including its Orion capsule, which is designed to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. Meanwhile, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company SpaceX is preparing its Dragon capsule to carry astronauts to and from the space station.

But the agency also is placing a high priority on a different set of skills than it once did, suggested Kavandi.

With only four US astronauts traveling to the space station each year, the corps is smaller, she said. But that also means each person needs to have a variety of skills "they can bring forward."

"The people that tend to be the most successful are the people that have shown a lot of experience in remote operations. They're very hands-on type people. They are comfortable in different cultures and countries," she said.

But they also have to know how to deal with discomfort, she added. The candidates in the new class work or play in extreme environments. It's easier for people to adjust to space if they've endured physical hardships on Earth, she added.

Persistence also pays. During his video presentation, Air Force Lt. Col. Nick Hague noted that this was the third time he'd applied for an astronaut position

The size of the astronaut corps has dropped from a high of about 149 in 2000 to 48 active-duty astronauts today, driven in no small part by the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. Shuttles were launching several times a year, with each mission carrying a crew of six to seven astronauts.

A study by the National Research Council, conducted as the shuttle program wound down, noted that for the foreseeable future, NASA would need between 45 and 55 active astronauts to fulfill to staff the space station and meet any future exploration needs. The new crop of candidates brings the number up to 49.

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