NASA's newest female astronaut candidates have the right stuff.
Four of the eight new NASA astronaut candidates announced Monday (June 17) are women, representing the highest percentage of female trainees chosen for any class in history.
The new astronauts were named publicly a day before the 30th anniversary of Sally Ride's first flight aboard the space shuttle Challenger that launched her into history as the first American woman to fly into space. The announcement also comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova's historic spaceflight in 1963 that made her the first women to fly into space. [Photos: Meet NASA's 2013 Astronaut Class]
The women selected for training in the new class were not chosen because of their gender, said Janet Kavandi, NASA's director of flight crew operations at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"We never determine how many people of each gender we're going to take, but these were the most qualified people of the ones that we interviewed," Kavandi said during a Google+ Hangout held in honor of the new class. "They earned every bit the right to be there."
Christina Hammock, Nicole Mann, Anne McClain and Jessica Meir will be the newest female trainees to enter the elite group housed at the Texas space center.
"I really strongly believe in both the practical aspects of the research being conducted, as well as the larger picture of the human spaceflight program bringing us forward as a human race and uniting us in exploring the universe," said Hammock, who currently serves as National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration station chief in American Samoa.
McClain and Mann both have experience as pilots at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and the U.S. Naval Air Station.
Meir holds a doctorate from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and is an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School.
"All the women candidates … have tremendous qualifications and certainly earned the right to be there, so I'm glad," Kavandi said. "I'm happy that it turned out that way, but we didn't go out intentionally seeking that when we started out."
Not including the new crop of potential astronauts, 12 of the 49 active NASA astronauts are women.
According to NASA, the new astronaut class was chosen from the second-largest number of applications ever received. More than 6,000 people applied for the 2013 selection.
The new class — rounded out by Josh Cassada, Victor Glover, Tyler Hague and Andrew Morgan — could be the first group of astronauts to pilot the Orion spacecraft, fly to an asteroid and even land on Mars, according to NASA officials.
Ride launched into orbit for the first time on June 18, 1983. She succumbed to pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2012, and later this year, President Barack Obama will award her with a posthumous Medal of Freedom.