The space shuttle Discovery launched this morning, sending seven astronauts into space toward the International Space Station. With only three shuttle flights left—the program will end later this year—and an uncertain future for manned NASA flights, what will happen to American astronauts?

For the near future, it seems that our astronauts will be working on the International Space Station, travelling into orbit via the Russian Soyuz spacecrafts.

Last summer, after a new group of nine astronauts was chosen for training, we spoke to astronaut and scientist Peggy Whitson about the need for astronauts in the future. Aside from being the first female commander on the space station, she chaired the astronaut selection board last year. She also has clocked the most time in space for a NASA astronaut: 376 days.

Last year the selection process was quite different, according to Dr. Whitson. “We did things a little bit differently this year because this was the first year we were selecting all long-duration flyers—people who are going to fly on the International Space Station for six months. Those of us who have flown on the station realize that being technically competent is obviously something that we want out of a crewmember, but also personality is pretty big—in being able to adapt to different and difficult situations is really important.”

After the one-year training program, the astronauts will be eligible for crew assignment. “Once they get picked to be on a crew, it would be another 2–2½ years of training before they’ll be able to fly on the space station.”

So don’t give up if you dream of becoming an astronaut—but be prepared for the reality of the challenge. According to Whitson, last year “we had 3800 applicants and we picked nine… So it’s not something that a lot of people get the opportunity to do. But it’s very special and it’s definitely worth pursuing.”

Image courtesy of NASA

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