NASA names 2004 class of aspiring astronauts
First training team chosen since the Columbia disaster
By Michael Coren
(CNN) -- NASA named its astronaut class of 2004, whose members will be trained to carry out the next phase of space exploration -- to the space station, the moon and perhaps even Mars.
The space agency announced the 11-member team during Space Day celebrations on Thursday at the National Air and Space Museum in Virginia.
"For over 20 years, it's been something I've desired to do," said Jim Dutton, 35, one of the candidates and a test pilot in the U.S. Air Force who grew up with a poster of Neil Armstrong in his bedroom. "I'm excited and stunned that this day is finally here, and very blessed too."
This class -- composed of teachers, scientists, engineers and pilots -- is the first to enter the space program since NASA announced its vision to resume human space flight to the moon and launch a mission to Mars.
"We're billing these people as the next generation of astronauts," said NASA spokesman, Allard Beutel.
It is also the first to include Educator Astronauts, a program sending teachers into space to educate and inspire classes on Earth.
The three teachers-- Joe Acaba, 36, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, 29, and Ricky Arnold II, 41-- were selected as Educator Astronauts and will teach science to students from kindergarten to high school during their missions.
The 11 candidates-- including three from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency -- will train over the next year at Johnson Space Center in Houston. They will then spend a year preparing for their specialized missions.
Few are likely to join their predecessors aboard the space shuttle, which is due to be retired in 2010 after the International Space Station is finished.
"Overall, as a class, they will not be shuttle astronauts," said Beutel. "They will be space station astronauts, testing and flying whatever is the new exploration vehicle."
Today, NASA is still struggling to return the space shuttle to flight since the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003.
Before flights resume, the agency must meet rigorous recommendations by the Columbia Accident Advisory Board to improve safety. Those include developing a way to make repairs in space, refurbishing the external fuel tank so foam does not fall off during launch and develop a flight plan for emergency rescue missions.
The agency's chief administrator, Sean O'Keefe, has committed to adopting these safety changes before approving more shuttle flights.
The first, by the shuttle Discovery, is scheduled to launch between March and April of next year. The shuttle's first missions will be dedicated to testing the shuttle's upgraded safety features.
Once the shuttle program resumes, the orbiters will complete 25 to 30 flights before they are retired upon completing the International Space Station. Each flight will carry anywhere between two and seven crew members, both seasoned astronauts and rookies, into space.
It is not certain how many in this year's class of astronauts will fly although NASA expects members to be on many exploration missions.
NASA now has 101 active candidates in its astronaut corps and 43 others known as "management astronauts," most of whom have flight experience and could return to space.
However, none of the 17 astronaut candidates from the 2000 class has flown yet, partially because of the Columbia. Some from the 1998 group have also not left the ground.
But the new astronauts candidate expressed optimism about eventually glimpsing the Earth from space.
"We're going to do great things here at NASA," said Joe Acaba at the announcement. "There are some challenges we have to overcome and risks we have to take...I look forward to the challenge."