NASA kicks off a new space tradition with glitzy astronaut graduation ceremony

Astronaut graduates
The newest astronauts in the corps for NASA (and the Canadian Space Agency) wave from the stage during their graduation ceremony at Johnson Space Center. From left: Kayla Barron, Zena Cardman, Raja Chari, Matthew Dominick, Bob Hines, Warren Hoburg, Jonny Kim, Joshua Kutryk (CSA), Jasmin Moghbeli. Loral O’Hara, Jessica Watkins, Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons (CSA) and Frank Rubio. (NASA Photo / James Blair)

Over the course of six decades, NASA has celebrated the selection of its astronauts in groups ranging from the Mercury 7 of 1959 to the Turtles of 2017 — but there’s never been much of a public celebration for their graduation from astronaut training. Until today.

The 11 astronaut candidates selected in 2017, plus two Canadian astronauts who joined them in training, received a grand send-off at Johnson Space Center in Texas from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other VIPs to mark their eligibility for assignment to future space missions.

NASA raised the graduation ceremony’s public profile in part to build up enthusiasm for this year’s expected debut of U.S.-built commercial space taxis, as well as the drive to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 — a campaign known as Artemis.

“These individuals represent the best of America, and what an incredible time for them to join our astronaut corps,” Bridenstine said during the ceremony. “2020 will mark the return of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, and will be an important year of progress for our Artemis program and missions to the moon and beyond.”

The graduates received a shout-out from NASA crewmates currently in orbit. “We’re sorry we couldn’t be there to celebrate this achievement with you in person today,” NASA astronaut Christina Koch said via video, “but we’ve been busy up here in the International Space Station, getting it ready for you guys to arrive and continue doing lots of science, spacewalks and upgrades.”

The astronaut candidates, or ascans for short, were chosen from a record-setting pool of more than 18,000 applicants. They spent two years in a training regime that includes instruction in space procedures, survival training, T-38 piloting proficiency, spacewalking practice and Russian-language instruction.

For the record, the NASA astronauts are Kayla Barron (a native of Richland, Wash.), Zena Cardman, Raja Chari, Matthew Dominick, Bob Hines, Warren Hoburg, Jonny Kim, Jasmin Moghbeli, Loral O’Hara, Frank Rubio and Jessica Watkins. The Canadian astronauts are Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons.

At Bridenstine’s urging, Kim explained that his class was nicknamed the Turtles because of a reference made at the ceremony marking their selection.

“When we were announced by Vice President Pence a couple of years ago, he made a metaphor that if you see a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself,” Kim said. “And that’s what we are, here today. Every person on stage here is a symbol of all the love and support that we’ve had from our friends, our mentors, our teachers.”

Each new astronaut received a silver pin, continuing a tradition that dates back to the Mercury 7. They’ll get a gold pin once they complete their first spaceflights.

Watch the full graduation ceremony:

Today’s graduation boosts NASA’s corps of active-duty astronauts to 48 people. That number is significantly less than it was during the space shuttle era. In 2004, for example, NASA had 101 active pilots and mission specialists, plus another 43 management astronauts who were eligible to return to flight status if needed.

The corps could well be due for further boosts in the years ahead, assuming that NASA’s drive to send astronauts to the moon and on to Mars picks up steam. The space agency says it’s already considering plans to open the application process this spring for the next class of candidates.

The astronauts who graduated today could fly to the International Space Station aboard Russia’s existing Soyuz spacecraft, or aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxis, which are expected to enter service this year. And they could soon ride NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule, which is scheduled to start carrying people beyond Earth orbit for the first time since Apollo in 2022.

If NASA and its partners stick anywhere close to their current timeline, some of the astronauts could well be heading to Mars in the 2030s and ’40s, on Orion or perhaps on a commercial craft like SpaceX’s Starship.

One member of the class, former SpaceX engineer Robb Kulin, dropped out in 2018 after the first year of NASA training due to personal reasons. That marked the first time since 1968 that an astronaut candidate left the program before qualifying for spaceflight. But don’t worry about Kulin: He’s currently chief engineer and program manager for Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha launch vehicle as well as the co-founder of an Alaskan startup called Keeni Space.

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