— NASA is preparing to select the first class of astronauts in more than 30 years that will enter training without the prospect of flying on the space shuttle.

What’s more, the director of NASA’s in believes at least some of the new hires will make their first spaceflight riding shotgun in a Soyuz, the Russian spacecraft that stands to be the only means of transporting people to and from the international space station once the shuttle is retired next year.

By the end of April, NASA hopes to have selected roughly a dozen astronaut candidates to join the Class of 2009 and begin a demanding two-year training course due to conclude some three years before the shuttle’s successor, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 rocket, is ready for its maiden flight.

Johnson Space Center Director Michael Coats, a veteran of three shuttle flights, said he had worried that the pending five-year gap between the space shuttle’s retirement and the 2015 debut of its successor would deter astronaut candidates from applying this time around.

But that did not turn out to be the case. NASA received 3,564 applications for the 2009 class and whittled the number under consideration to the weeks ahead, NASA intends to announce the dozen or so candidates who will join a corps of 85 active astronauts.

Coats said he was pleased with the turnout NASA received since announcing in September 2007 it was accepting applications from pilots, engineers, scientists and teachers.

“So far I think we are continuing to attract the best and the brightest from the talent pool out there, both astronauts and engineers. I don’t see a lessening of quality but I worry about it because I know the number of qualified people, especially engineers, is shrinking,” Coats said during a March 19 Space Transportation Association breakfast here.

Coats also said he is concerned young people will lose interest in human spaceflight while the United States is without its own astronaut-carrying launch vehicle.

“If we are going to have a gap where we can’t put people in space, that bothers me a lot because I think it won’t intrigue the young people as much. It will essentially be the same as other countries that pay the Russians to take folks into space,” Coats said.

As for the applicants currently being interviewed for between 10 and 12 astronaut candidate slots, “They know they’re not going to fly the shuttle, they’re probably going to wait many years to fly and when they do they probably will fly on Soyuz to the space station,” he said.

Once selected, the astronaut candidates will begin about two years of training in August that will include 39 weeks of training for missions to the international space station, said Duane Ross, NASA’s manager for astronaut command selection and training at . One of the most grueling parts of the old training regimen – 54 weeks on space shuttle systems – will be replaced with travel to Russia to train for flights aboard the Soyuz capsule that will ferry U.S. astronauts to the space station until NASA completes the Ares 1 rocket and Orion crew capsule. The vehicles are part of the Constellation program aimed at returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

Because the space agency plans to rely heavily on Soyuz for transportation to the space station, astronauts will take more intensive Russian language classes than previous astronaut candidates, Ross said.

“They needed to have some Russian language familiarity before, but now we are going to up the game on Russian language training,” Ross said.

There also will be a greater emphasis on geology and geophysics as NASA prepares to return humans to the Moon and Mars, Ross said.

The makeup of most astronaut classes has been about one-third pilots and two-thirds scientists and engineers, and Ross said he does not expect that to change much this year, even though members of this class are unlikely to pilot a spacecraft anytime soon.

NASA needs astronaut candidates who can fly the T-38 Talon supersonic jets that astronauts have been using for training since the 1960s.

“If we had any emphasis right now, certainly you need people on the operational side. We’ve interviewed doctors and field geologists too, but even though we aren’t going to fly the shuttle anymore, we still need pilots,” Ross said.