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NASA’s latest astronaut candidate list includes 2 with Alaskan connections

Published: Dec. 11, 2021 at 3:25 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Wasilla’s Deniz Burnham is a rare breed; not for who she is, but what she’s hoping to accomplish.

Monday at Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Burnham joined a select group of Americans and even smaller list of Alaskans who harbor aspirations of traveling to space.

Burnham was announced as one of 10 new astronaut candidates for NASA, the first new class in four years. Since the original Mercury Seven opened NASA’s program as the first class of astronaut candidates in 1959, only 360 names have graced the list.

The release said the class of 10 will represent the United States and “work for humanity’s benefit in space.”

“I’m just so honored, honestly, it’s completely surreal to me, I don’t think it’s sunk in, but I’m so honored to serve alongside these really talented individuals,” Burnham said.

Deniz Burnham of Wasilla is one of NASA's 10 newest astronaut candidates.
Deniz Burnham of Wasilla is one of NASA's 10 newest astronaut candidates.(ROBERT MARKOWITZ NASA-JSC | NASA photo (Photographer: Robert Markowitz))

Burnham will be joined by another candidate with Alaskan connections. Nichole Ayers, 32, is a Colorado native, but was based at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage at the time of her selection, working as assistant director of operations in the 90th Fighter Squadron.

The two women with Alaskan connections made the list, which began with over 12,000 applicants. They will report Jan. 10 to start a two-year training process that could lead to them being assigned missions on the International Space Station.

Burnham’s Alaskan roots go back decades; her father was born in Fairbanks, although Burnham herself was born on Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey. Growing up in a military family, Burnham called many places home, but lived in Wasilla at the time of her astronaut candidacy announcement.

Burnham earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in mechanical engineering. As part of NASA’s requirements to become an astronaut, she has a background in STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

She made the move to Alaska after college upon getting a job on the North Slope, while living in Anchorage.

She said her time working on the North Slope helped provide the skillset that will serve her in her bid to become an astronaut.

“I felt like this is kind of what helped me build that foundation of skills that I could apply to helping NASA’s mission, at least,” she said.

It was in Alaska where she earned her helicopter pilot license, as well as learning to scuba dive, which Burnham said is part of the Alaskan experience.

“The opportunity for adventure is huge in Alaska,” she said. “It wasn’t just my work experience on the Slope, even though like that was an extreme environment. It’s remote, working on the rigs, of course requires a lot of teamwork, adaptability, you’re real time problem solving.

“Flying in Alaska … you also have to navigate, and you’re communicating, so these are all skills that all kind of serve well.”

Now living in Wasilla, Burnham and her fiancée will soon be making the move to Houston, Texas, to live the dream of making it to space.

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