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

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For instance, the class includes Marine Maj. Nichole Mann, an F-18 pilot who served in Iraq, graduated from test-pilot school, and is a test-pilot operations officer at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

What if some have no front-seat, fighter-jet experience? No problem. Candidate Jessica Meir, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, has a private pilot's license. But she and her classmates will head down to Pensacola Naval Air Station for training in high-performance jets.

"I'm really excited about going to Pensacola for flight training in jets," she said in a prerecorded video. Indeed, none of the candidates was present for the rollout of their training class because all were busy at home tying up loose ends before moving to Houston.

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.

"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.

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