June 15, 2017
When Jessica Watkins was growing up, NASA was launching space shuttle missions into low-Earth orbit about every few months. But Watkins, one of NASA’s newest astronauts, doesn’t really remember watching the launches on television. Her first enduring memory of American space exploration came in 2004, when a pair of robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on the surface of Mars.
“That was a really cool moment, and I kind of knew from then that it would be really awesome to work on a Mars rover,” said Watkins, who was 15 years old at the time.
Watkins and 11 others were introduced last week as NASA’s newest astronaut class, selected from a pool of more than 18,300 applicants. Watkins turned 29 years old last month, and is one of the youngest astronaut candidates in history. Two other new recruits, Kayla Barron and Zena Cardman, are the same age. This makes them the first astronauts to emerge from that much-maligned cohort, the millennials. Unlike earlier generations of astronauts, they came of age during a time in American spaceflight when space-shuttle launches were, for the most part, routine, and schools no longer interrupted lessons to wheel in bulky televisions so students could watch the action. By the time of their early twenties, the shuttle program was canceled.
Image: NASA/BIll Ingalls
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