WASHINGTON -- Feb. 4, 2014 - On the E-ring of the Pentagon hangs a picture of the Mercury 7 - NASA's first group of astronauts.
All were military test pilots: Marine Corps Maj. John Glenn, Navy Cmdr. Alan Shepherd, Air Force Maj. Gus Grissom, Air Force Maj. Gordon Cooper, Navy Cmdr. Wally Schirra, Navy Cmdr. Scott Carpenter and Air Force Maj. Deke Slayton.
The military tie remains strong in the astronaut corps today, as NASA's new class of astronauts has six serving military officers. The group visited the Pentagon last week and met with Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Air Force Lt. Col. Tyler Hague, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Josh A. Cassada, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor J. Glover, Marine Corps Maj. Nicole Mann, Army Maj. Anne McClain and Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Andrew Morgan are the military members of the class. Drs. Jessica Meir and Christina M. Hammock are the civilians.
The military astronauts - like just about anyone else in the services today - bring the experience of operating in Iraq. Hague worked to detect or jam improvised explosive devices. McClain flew helicopters in and around Kirkuk and Tal Afar. Morgan was a flight doctor who deployed with the 3rd Special Forces Group to Iraq.
Until the inclusion of this class, the United States had fewer than 50 active astronauts. They serve in a variety of jobs, including at Mission Control in Houston or as liaisons with commercial space vendors.
Others live and work with the Russian space agency. Those astronauts train in Star City outside Moscow, and at the launch facilities at Baikonur.
All of the new astronauts are learning Russian, a development that probably would surprise the Mercury astronauts, who were selected at the height of the Cold War.
It was a tough process to be selected. More than 6,100 applications went to NASA in 2011. For some, it wasn't the first experience. Hague, for example, first applied to be an astronaut in 2003.
"It boils down to two rounds of interviews, and the interviews consist of a lot of medical screening," Hague said. "There's not a lot of time away from service during the selection process."
Hague said he almost forgot he had submitted an application when he was notified he had been selected. His packet had to go through the Air Force and NASA. His civilian colleagues had it a bit easier. Hammock, one of the civilians, said she simply filled out a resume on the USAJobs website and submitted it.
The astronauts have begun their two years of training before their first flight into space. There are only a few slots for U.S. astronauts per year aboard the International Space Station. Some could be involved in development and testing of new spacecraft.
And one could be landing on Mars someday. You never know where a government job can take you.