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As shuttle era ends, questions loom for shrinking astronaut corps

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When astronaut Garrett Reisman returned from an 11-day space shuttle mission last May, he knew he was headed to the back of the line. If he wanted to return to orbit, he would have to wait at least five years for a second tour aboard the international space station, which he had called home for 95 days in 2008.

And even if he were offered a chance to return to space, Reisman would have to fly aboard a cramped Russian capsule, not an American space shuttle. After NASA’s Atlantis rolls to a stop later this month, the Soyuz will be the only ride to space — and slots are limited.

For the foreseeable future, NASA plans to send just four to six astronauts — American and international — to the space station each year, paying Russia up to $56 million per seat.

Instead of waiting, Reisman joined a steady flow of astronauts drifting away from NASA like so many untethered spacewalkers.

The agency’s vaunted astronaut corps, trained to withstand high acceleration, dangerous spacewalks, isolation and countless technical hiccups, now confronts a challenge with no handy checklist: the unknown.

“A lot of astronauts have to make a decision. Do they want to wait five, six, seven years?” said Thomas D. Jones, a Baltimore native who flew four shuttle missions before leaving NASA in 2001.

At that time, the agency employed 150 astronauts, the largest space-going workforce in its history. By October 2009, that number had fallen to 92. Now it stands at 61, with two retirements imminent — including that of Mark Kelly, the commander of a recent shuttle mission and the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the wounded Arizona congresswoman — and “a few more departures” likely later this year, said Peggy Whitson, chief astronaut at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“This is a time of transition, and it’s stressful for everyone at NASA,” said Reisman. In May, the Ph.D. mechanical engineer landed at SpaceX, the Hawthorne, Calif., start-up that has a $1.6 billion NASA contract to resupply the space station. There he joins another former astronaut, Kenneth Bowersox, and together the pair are upgrading the company’s Dragon space capsule to one day hoist astronauts to the space station.

That goal will be aided by another former astronaut, Pamela Melroy, who left NASA in 2009. In June, Melroy joined the Federal Aviation Administration, where she will work closely with SpaceX and other companies to develop safety regulations for the fledging commercial space industry.

Melroy piloted two shuttle missions and commanded a third. But the tedium of training for an uncertain future drove her to seek new challenges. “I didn’t want to get into a position where I was jockeying politically to get onto one of last few [shuttle] flights,” she said.

No one knows when astronauts will fly the Dragon or any other U.S.-built spacecraft. President Obama and Congress have directed NASA to develop a capsule — originally known as Orion and now called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — for future flights to asteroids or beyond. In its 2011 spending plan, NASA says it will pour $1.2 billion into the new craft. But the Apollo-like capsule has no hard timeline for completion. No mission has been selected.

So NASA officials point to the next generation of crew vehicles in development by U.S. firms. In April, the agency split $269 million among four companies — SpaceX; Boeing; Blue Origin of Kent, Wash.; and Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev. — to push development of spacecraft rated for human flight. By 2016, the agency says, one of those vehicles will carry NASA astronauts into orbit.

Former astronauts point out that joining the corps has often meant a long pause before spaceflight. Reisman waited 10 years, while Story Musgrave spent 16 years at NASA before launching on the first of his six shuttle missions, in 1983. Until now, though, one thing was always certain for ASCANs, or astronaut candidates: Unless you screwed up big-time, NASA would reward your years of sacrifice with a trip to space, said Roger Launius, a space historian at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

All 59 active-duty, non-retiring astronauts have, in fact, made it off Earth.

But for the latest crop of trainees — four American and five international ASCANs selected in 2009 — question marks loom. The first astronauts since the 1970s not to train for shuttle flight, they will instead spend up to five years preparing for space station life, spending some 30 to 40 percent of their time training overseas. They will learn Russian — for 400 hours. They will stuff themselves into spacesuits underwater. And if they do well, six of them will fly to the space station by 2016, according to a presentation chief astronaut Whitson made to a National Research Council panel in January.

That panel is now reviewing the country’s astronaut needs. By the end of August, it will recommend how many astronauts, training aircraft and training facilities NASA should maintain in the post-shuttle era.

The American with the most experience in orbit — Whitson lived aboard the space station for more than a year during two missions — adamantly wants to maintain an astronaut workforce of about 60. “We’re looking forward to 10 more years of 24/7 occupation of the international space station,” she said.

In her January presentation, Whitson highlighted the need for a robust crew of backup fliers, as the dangers of training and living in orbit can keep otherwise qualified astronauts grounded. Between mid-2009 and early 2011, five astronauts underwent shoulder surgery after injuring themselves in spacesuits. A further 26 shoulder and elbow injuries required rehabilitation. And recovery from bone loss after space station stints can take up to three years.

Already, though, astronaut budgets are declining. For fiscal 2012, NASA has asked Congress for $84 million for human spaceflight operations, down from $104 million in 2010. Still, Whitson advocates hiring nine new astronaut candidates in 2012 and six more in 2014.

Despite the end of the shuttle program, interest in a trip to space — no matter now uncertain — continues to soar. In selecting the 2009 class, NASA managers had to sift through some 3,500 applications.

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