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"The Blue Marble." Image source: NASA.

Earth. It's got blue skies, pleasant beaches, seasonally warm temperatures -- and getting warmer. As planets go, it's not half bad -- but sometimes, don't you just want to try something different for a change?

If so, then NASA may have a job for you.

Last week, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that on Dec. 14, it will begin accepting applications for its next class of candidates for astronaut training. If you're an engineer, a doctor, a pilot, or a scientist, NASA wants to hear from you about helping it "realize the goal of putting boot prints on the Red Planet."

Applications can be made to -- believe it or not -- the catchall government jobs website www.usajobs.gov. But before applying, you should scan the job requirements, which include:

  • a B.S. in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. ("An advanced degree is desirable.")
  • "at least" three years of "related, progressively responsible professional experience."
  • or if you're a pilot, "at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft." (So crop dusters need not apply.)

Also, there's a physical exam to pass.

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The Red Planet. Image source: NASA.

The first day of the rest of your life... on Mars
The job does come with perks, however, not the least of which will be the chance to serve on the International Space Station (the ultimate penthouse suite), a commercial crew spacecraft servicing said ISS (beats the heck out of driving a taxi), or even the new Orion deep-space exploration vehicle.

Following application, selections will be announced mid-2017. After that, newly minted astronauts can expect to serve on any one of several exciting new missions. For example, Orion is expected to take its first manned spaceflight as early as 2021. Later in that decade, Orion will set out to lasso an asteroid from the Van Allen Belt and put it in orbit around the Moon. And after test-driving Orion around the solar system for a decade or so, sometime in the 2030s, NASA thinks it will be ready to drop by Mars itself.

Warming up the engines
In furtherance of that goal, NASA has another project getting ready for prime time that may be of interest to astronauts -- and investors, too. Dubbed the Solar Electric Propulsion project, or SEP, its aim is to reduce costs and accelerate the process of space exploration through use of "alternative propulsion technologies."

Putting a spaceship in orbit, after all, is expensive. And one of the most expensive parts of the process is putting fuel in orbit, so as to gas up the spaceship so it can go tooling 'round the solar system. NASA thinks it would be much cheaper to power its spaceships with electricity generated from solar power, however. Its plan: Develop "radiation-resistant solar arrays that can be stowed into small, lightweight packages for launch and then unfurled to capture enough solar energy to provide the high levels of electrical power needed to enable high-powered solar electric propulsion."

That may sound like pie in the sky (so to speak). But in fact, NASA is already well on its way to making SEP a reality. Already, key contractor Orbital ATK (NYSE:OA) has developed two prototype solar arrays for NASA. Orbital ATK's first variant, ATK MegaFlex, "folds out like a fan." Its other option, DSS Mega-ROSA, "rolls out like a window shade."

Orbital ATK has had a fantastic year as a stock already -- and now it's entirely possible that Orbital's solar arrays will power a new generation of electrostatic ion drives dubbed "Hall thrusters."

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Ion drive -- live test. Image source: NASA.

Help wanted
One final option, and this one apparently does not involve Orbital ATK, is the much-talked-about "EM Drive" or "Emdrive" that's been setting the space media on fire these past two years. The physics-defying device is supposedly capable of generating enough thrust to power a spaceship from Earth to Mars in just 10 weeks. Repeated tests of the Emdrive by NASA and other researchers all appear to confirm that it works. The only problem is that no one yet seems quite certain how it works.

Luckily, there's enough time left between now and when NASA opens its astronaut applications to tweak its job qualifications one final time: Feel free to reply if you're an engineer, doctor, pilot, scientist... or auto mechanic.

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Well, here's your problem! You forgot to change the oil in your Emdrive! Image source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 299 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

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