"Going to Mars, a human journey to Mars, I think absolutely is a renaissance. I think we've captivated not just the U.S. but the world," said NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.
Newman hopes a record-breaking number of qualified Americans apply to NASA's astronaut class of 2017.
"The background is really important," Newman said. "How are people as leaders? How are they in a team? We have a really rigorous selection board."
Applicants must be a U.S. citizen with a bachelor's degree in engineering, biological or physical science or mathematics. They also should have three years of relevant experience, or at least 1,000 hours piloting a jet.
The physical exam is another hurdle.
"It takes an extraordinary person," Newman said. In addition to the intellectual and physical qualifications, the ideal candidate must also have operational skills.
"How do you make decisions? How do you work in teams? Because you are making critical decisions and in human space flight, you are making life and death decisions," Newman said.
There have been 338 NASA astronauts ranging in age from 26 to 46. Of the 6,300 who applied for the last class, only eight - four men and four women - were chosen. That's about a 0.1 percent chance of success.
But aerobatic pilot and NASA applicant Melissa Pemberton isn't discouraged. "For a pilot and someone that has a passion for travel and adventure and aviation, I just can't even imagine a better job than being an astronaut," Pemberton said.
Candidates will spend at least one year training for spacewalks, operating robotics and undergoing mission simulations, all in the hope of one day going to Mars.
"It'll take us about eight months to get there and it's round trip, so just under a couple years round trip," Newman said. "And we'll be on the surface of Mars for about 500 days searching for the evidence of life, of past life."
While many people are fascinated by space, the NASA job may not be a good fit for everyone.
"People with a lot of experience and all the right academic background, that's who typically make it, but it is a very fine filter," Newman said. "It's an audacious thing. But then you talk to any astronaut they say we're just normal people. People are so humble and grounded and say, 'You can do it -- dream.' And that's a really important message."
NASA will be accepting applications until February 18th.