HOUSTON (CN) – Turtles in space? Yes, really. The Soviet Union launched two tortoises in the 1960s in a space probe that orbited the moon. But the United States has prepared its own group of space-worthy “turtles,” the nickname for a class of 11 people who graduated from NASA’s astronaut program Friday.
After more than two years of training that involved months-long expeditions to Antarctica, Yosemite National Park, volcanoes and wilderness plus water survival training, NASA’s new astronauts are the first of the agency’s Artemis Era to earn their wings.
For its Artemis program, NASA plans to return astronauts to the moon in 2024, including the first woman, using rockets built by SpaceX and other companies. It also wants to deploy a rover to map out ice pockets near the moon’s south pole with ambitions of converting the ice into hydrogen fuel for a rocket launch to Mars.
“Perhaps one of them could be the first human to walk on Mars…They represent the best of humanity and our most fervent hopes for the future. No pressure,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Friday, turning to the group of six men and five women in the ceremony held at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
They were selected for the space program out of a record 18,000-plus applicants, Bridenstine said.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joked in a short speech that when he first met the class in 2017 he felt “incredibly inadequate” listening to their accomplishments and wondered what he had been doing with his life.
“Jonny, you’re a Navy SEAL with a degree from Harvard Medical School, that’s just ridiculous. I mean he can kill you and then bring you back to life and do it all in space,” Cruz, a Harvard Law School graduate, said of Jonny Kim.
Born and raised in Los Angeles by his Korean immigrant parents, Kim, 35, was a medic, sniper, point man and navigator on more than 100 SEAL combat missions in the Middle East, according to his NASA biography.
Bridenstine asked the new astronauts about the origin of their nickname. Kim said it came from remarks Vice President Mike Pence gave at a June 2017 NASA astronaut graduation.
“He made the metaphor that when you see a turtle on a fence post you know it didn’t get there by itself. And that’s what we are. Every person on stage here is a symbol of all the love and support we’ve had from our friends, from our mentors and our teachers,” Kim said.
Last year female astronauts set new milestones. Christina Koch and Jessica Meir performed the first all-female spacewalk on the International Space Station in October, replacing a controller for the station’s solar power system.
Koch has now been orbiting Earth in the space station for 302 days. She broke the record of 288 days straight for a woman in space, held by retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, on Dec. 28.
“We’ve been busy up here on the International Space Station getting ready for you to arrive and doing science, spacewalks and upgrades. You are going to love looking down at our beautiful Earth and the moon,” Koch told the graduates in a video clip played in Friday’s ceremony.
The class of new astronauts included two Canadians who trained with the Americans.
On stage Friday addressing the significance of October’s all-women spacewalk, Canadian astronaut Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons said, “It’s a sign of the incredible progress that you can make when you include everyone in your mission and you back it 100%.”
Though that mission broke new ground for NASA’s female astronauts, the new graduates can rest assured the glass ceiling no longer applies in zero gravity.
Koch and Meir are scheduled to venture out of the space station again on Jan. 15 and Jan. 20, moving at a turtle’s pace, while orbiting the Earth at 17,000 mph in their bulky spacesuits as they perform the painstaking job of replacing batteries for the station’s solar system.