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A record number of Americans applied to become NASA astronauts

More Americans than ever want to be astronauts.

A total of 18,300 people applied for the position during NASA’s most recent hiring round, smashing the previous record of 8,000 set back in 1978, and almost three times the number of applications received in 2012 when the space agency last put out the call.

It’s likely NASA’s increasing use of online tools in recent years has helped boost interest in its work, while a run of space-based Hollywood blockbusters won’t have done its profile any harm, either.

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The window for applications, which stayed open for nine weeks before closing last Thursday, marks the start of an 18-month process that NASA hopes will help it find between eight and fourteen highly competent candidates.

Starting in 2017, the final selection of hopefuls will undergo around two years of initial training on spacecraft systems, spacewalking skills and teamwork, Russian language, and other requisite skills, NASA said.

Those who complete the training program will be given technical duties at Johnson Space Center in Houston before being assigned to either the International Space Station, NASA’s Orion spacecraft for deep space exploration (Orion’s first manned space flight beyond the moon could happen in 2023), or one of two American-made commercial crew spacecraft currently in development – Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner or the SpaceX Crew Dragon.

Related: Here’s NASA’s three-step plan for getting humans on Mars

“It’s not at all surprising to me that so many Americans from diverse backgrounds want to personally contribute to blazing the trail on our journey to Mars,” NASA administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden said in response to the huge number of applications. “A few exceptionally talented men and women will become the astronauts chosen in this group who will once again launch to space from U.S. soil on American-made spacecraft.”

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet five years ago, NASA has had to rely on Russian rockets to get its astronauts into space. But now the U.S. is preparing to return to the fold with manned launches from home soil, and the current selection process is lining up to help it achieve the ambitious task in hand.