The unsung astronauts

Astronauts have gone from idolized to anonymous. As NASA prepares to launch humans from the U.S. again, the nature of space flight and who does it is changing once more.

The journey to outer space for American astronauts for the past seven years has begun at a Soviet-era launch site in Kazakhstan, deep in Central Asia. There, they pay homage to Russian cosmonauts and graciously participate in the rituals of their hosts, even the tradition of urinating on the right rear tire of the bus that ferries them to the rocket.

The landscape is barren and desiccated, resembling the moon or some distant celestial body, a reminder that the astronauts are a long way from Cape Canaveral.

Now, human space flight is returning to the place where the American Space Age was born.

As soon as this year, NASA expects to end its reliance on Russia and launch American pilots from U.S. soil for the first time since the final shuttle mission in 2011. But this time, the astronauts will fly on rockets unlike any NASA has ever seen — built and operated by companies trying to turn spaceflight into a sustainable business.

These first flights will be the fruits of $6.8 billion worth of contracts that NASA awarded to Boeing and SpaceX and mark a fundamental shift in America’s human space program — outsourcing access to Earth’s orbit to private sector companies, some of which hope to eventually bring tourists to space.

Those chosen by NASA for its upcoming missions are a quartet of former military pilots and NASA veterans who combined have spent more than a year in space over eight flights. They were all carefully selected not just to fly to the International Space Station but to help reinvigorate NASA’s often-overlooked human spaceflight program.

Yet unlike their predecessors from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs — heroes and household names whose “one giant leap” was imprinted in the national lexicon and whose lunar footprints endure undisturbed decades later — today’s astronauts are largely anonymous.

The Apollo 11 lunar module is photographed from the command service module as it prepares to rendezvous July 20, 1969. The Earth rises above the lunar horizon. (NASA/AP)
These footprints on the moon will last forever, but the nature of who can be an astronaut is changing. (NASA/AP)
Astronaut Edwin “Buzz“ Aldrin stands by the American flag during the first moon landing. (Neil Armstrong/NASA/AP)
FROM LEFT: The Apollo 11 lunar module is seen from the command service module July 20, 1969. Photos of the footprints on the moon and astronaut Edwin “Buzz“ Aldrin have remained iconic, but the nature of who can be an astronaut is changing. (Photos by NASA/AP)

The stars of the new Space Age are instead a group of billionaire entrepreneurs, led by SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, who value technology over bravery, algorithms over instinct, and whose rockets and spacecraft may one day turn ordinary people into astronauts. In the digital age, the mantle of “the right stuff” is being bequeathed to the engineers and the programmers, who are collapsing the line between pilot and passenger one line of code at a time.

They are the ones calling for the Kennedy-esque vision of space travel, which has attracted the public’s attention, and also investors. Musk talks of colonizing Mars. Branson boasts that Virgin Galactic already has 700 people signed up for tourist jaunts to the edge of space. And Jeffrey P. Bezos’s Blue Origin says its goal is nothing short of “millions of people living and working in space.” (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Companies in the Cosmos
NASA lost its ability to launch humans from U.S. soil when the space shuttle retired. Now, companies and billionaire entrepreneurs are defining a new space age.

NASA does its best to promote its astronauts. They are available for interviews and to speak at community events, at businesses and to schoolchildren, especially from the space station, where they perform weightless somersaults and gobble floating M&Ms. They rhapsodize about seeing Earth from space and dutifully answer the question that everyone always asks: How do you go to the bathroom in space?

Aboard the space station, the orbiting laboratory, they work more as researchers and scientists than explorers, circling the Earth every 90 minutes on an endless loop just 250 miles high, or about the distance between New York and Washington.

Back on Earth, they are no longer feted by Broadway ticker-tape parades. Inside Houston’s Johnson Space Center, they are still treated like heroes. But outside those walls, they are recognizable, like soldiers, police officers and firefighters, only when they don their signature blue suits. Otherwise, they are government employees, performing a job that has an entry-level salary for civilians of $69,904 a year, free to roam the grocery store aisles in peace.

A parade in New York City on Aug. 14, 1969, honors Apollo 11 astronauts, from left, Edwin “Buzz“ Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong (partly obscured). While they were household names, today’s astronauts remain largely anonymous to the public. (AP)
Mothers show their children the issue of the paper talking about the moon landing. (Fred Morgan/New York Daily News/Getty Images)
A sidewalk cafe in Milan put a TV outdoors so people could follow the moon landing. (AP)
TOP: A parade in New York City on Aug. 14, 1969, honors Apollo 11 astronauts, from left, Edwin “Buzz“ Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong (partly obscured). (AP) LEFT: The moon landing was big news everywhere. (Fred Morgan/New York Daily News/Getty Images) RIGHT: People crowd around a cafe in Milan to watch the landing. The three men were household names, but today’s astronauts are largely anonymous. (AP)

This is a good thing, says Scott Kelly, the most famous of the modern astronauts, who spent nearly a year in space. It’s hard-won progress that’s the result of making space travel routine.

“It’s an indication we do it right,” he says. “Safely.”

More than 500 people have been to space. Not all of them can be famous. John Glenn and his fellow Mercury astronauts were pioneers in the truest sense — the first Americans to go to space, and then to orbit. Then came Gemini and Apollo. Men on the moon, and another ticker-tape parade.

“Everyone knows who Orville and Wilbur Wright were,” Kelly says. “But no one knows the second or third person to fly an airplane.”

Visitors watch an astronaut practice for flight April 26 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Despite the end of shuttle flights, astronauts still travel to the International Space Station. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The forgotten astronauts

Their names are Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and Sunita Williams. They are the ones chosen for NASA’s next big missions. But instead of flying on rockets designed and operated by the space agency, their rides will come courtesy of a pair of contractors — SpaceX and Boeing — hired to provide a taxi-like service to the International Space Station.

Even the spacesuits are new and sleek, far different than the traffic-cone orange “pumpkin suits” worn by the shuttle astronauts. Boeing’s are ocean blue and comfortable; SpaceX’s are white and black, right out of a sci-fi flick.

With the first flights scheduled for later this year — a timeline that will probably slip — NASA is expected to soon announce which astronauts are flying when. That would mark a definitive step for its “Commercial Crew” program, which has been delayed again and again, as the companies have struggled to get their new spacecraft ready and as the ever-cautious NASA overcomes the scarring memories of the shuttle Columbia explosion in 2003.

Astronaut Sunita Williams has flown in the shuttle and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. She is one of four chosen for NASA’s next human missions. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Astronaut Robert Behnken remembers being glued to C-SPAN watching the hearings after the Challenger explosion in 1986. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Astronaut Sunita Williams has flown in the shuttle and the Soyuz. She is one of four chosen for NASA’s next human missions. Astronaut Robert Behnken remembers watching the C-SPAN hearings after the Challenger explosion in 1986. (Photos by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

NASA has already offered a glimpse of four members of the first crews to fly, some of the best and most experienced in the astronaut corps. They have served as high-ranking officers in the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy who grew up wanting adventure. Combined, they have spent 74 years at NASA. Three have children. All are married. Two, Hurley and Behnken, are married to other astronauts.

At 53, Boe is the oldest, with a vague memory of being nearly 5 years old “when my parents came in and said, ‘Come watch this.’ ” There were men walking on the moon on the black-and-white television. At 47, Behnken, is the youngest, with no memory of Apollo but a vivid one of when the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, and how for days afterward he stayed glued to the hearings on C-SPAN, as investigators tried to sort out how the mission had gone so horribly wrong.

Williams, 52, is the veteran of the group, having joined the astronaut corps in 1998, two years before the other three and the only one to fly on both the space shuttle and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. She grew up wanting to be a veterinarian but ended up going to the Naval Academy and then became a naval helicopter pilot and then an astronaut, who on her first trip to space was “hooting and hollering” and “having so much fun” with her crewmates as the shuttle lifted off.

Over time, astronauts

started to be accepted by NASA at an older age.

1

6

Men

Women

The first American astronauts were seven young men with a military background.

Age

25 years

30

35

40

46

Accepted

in...

1959

‘62

‘63

‘65

‘66

‘67

‘69

‘78

‘80

‘84

‘85

‘87

‘90

‘92

‘94

‘96

‘98

‘00

‘04

‘09

‘13

2017

While half of the current applicants come from the military, the other half are academics, researchers and engineers.

Note: NASA international astronauts not represented

Source: NASA

Over time, astronauts started to be accepted by NASA at an older age.

1

6

Men

Women

The first American astronauts were seven young men with a military background.

Age

25 years

30

35

40

46

Accepted in...

1959

‘62

‘63

‘65

‘66

‘67

‘69

‘78

‘80

‘84

‘85

‘87

‘90

‘92

‘94

‘96

‘98

‘00

‘04

‘09

‘13

2017

While half of the current applicants come from the military, the other half are academics, researchers and engineers.

Note: NASA international astronauts not represented

Source: NASA

Over time, astronauts started to be accepted by NASA at an older age.

1

6

Men

Women

Accepted

in...

Age

25 years old

30

35

40

46

The first American astronauts were seven young men with a military background.

1959

‘62

‘63

‘65

‘66

‘67

‘69

‘78

‘80

‘84

‘85

‘87

‘90

‘92

‘94

‘96

‘98

‘00

‘04

‘09

‘13

2017

While half of the current applicants come from the military, the other half are academics, researchers and engineers.

Note: NASA international

astronauts not represented

Source: NASA

“The guys on the flight deck were like, ‘Would you guys shut up? We can’t hear,’ ” she recalls.

Hurley, 51, is a retired Marine Corps colonel who flew two shuttle missions. He knows the triumph and the majesty of seeing Earth from space. His first mission lasted 16 days, traveling 6,547,853 miles, orbiting the Earth 248 times.

His second mission was shorter, 12 days, and bittersweet. It was the very last shuttle mission, which brought not just sadness but unemployment for hundreds.

Inside the Johnson Space Center, the four astronauts’ photos line the walls. But their anonymity among the public doesn’t bother them, they say. They fly not for fame but “for the greater good,” Hurley says. “We do it for the country. We do it for the agency. And we do it because we are passionate about it.”

Astronaut Eric Boe remembers when he was nearly 5 years old watching TV as the first humans landed on the moon. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Astronaut Doug Hurley flew two shuttle missions, including the last one before the shuttle program was shut down. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Astronaut Eric Boe, left, remembers being nearly 5 years old and watching TV as the first humans landed on the moon. Astronaut Doug Hurley, right, flew two shuttle missions, including the last one before the shuttle program was shut down. (Photos by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

But today, they do it on Russian rockets from a launch site in Kazakhstan, nearly 7,000 miles from Cape Canaveral, a distance that muffles their launches to the point of obscurity for much of the American public.

Few seem to remember that astronauts have lived on the space station continuously since 2000 and that NASA still operates three spacecraft orbiting Mars and two rovers on its surface. Its New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in 2015; Voyager 1, launched in 1977 is more than 13 billion miles from Earth, the only human-made object in interstellar space.

And still, so many ask: Is NASA closed?

“We get that question constantly,” Hurley says. “What do you do now that the [shuttle] program is over?”

That question shows “just how closely tied human spaceflight is to the public perception of NASA,” says Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut.

A Soyuz spaceship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off at the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 17. The United States has been reliant on Russia to get astronauts into space. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

Paying homage to Russia

When they launch on Russian rockets, a world away, NASA’s astronauts are like foreign exchange students, strangers soaking up the local culture and customs in a distant and curious land.

They stop first in Star City, Russia, outside of Moscow, where American astronauts pay homage to the Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human ever to reach space, leaving red carnations at his memorial wall.

Then, two weeks before launch, they head deep into the Central Asian desert, to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soviet-era launch site in Kazakhstan, where the food is heavy and salty, and, like the astronauts who have flown before them, NASA’s best participate in rituals both sacrosanct and superstitious.

Before the launch, the astronauts watch the 1970 Russian movie “White Sun of the Desert.” They are blessed by an Orthodox priest in a golden robe, who presses a cross to their nose and blesses them with a splash of water to the face that comes, to some, with unexpected force. The astronauts drink a glass of champagne and then, before being transported to the launch site, urinate on the bus’s rear right tire because, legend has it, Gagarin did so before his first flight.

The Soyuz spacecraft is rolled out by train to the launchpad at the Soviet-era Baikonur Cosmodrome in 2015. (Bill Ingalls/NASA)
The cosmodrome includes a statue of Soviet Union leader Vladimir Lenin. U.S. astronauts launching from there must follow rituals related to Yuri Gagarin, the first person to reach space. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)
U.S. astronaut Randy Bresnik waves to his family from a bus before flying to the space station from Kazakhstan on July 28. (Shamil Zhumatov/AP)
TOP: The Soyuz spacecraft heads to the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in 2015. (Bill Ingalls/NASA) LEFT: The cosmodrome includes a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. U.S. astronauts launching from there follow rituals related to Yuri Gagarin, the first person to reach space. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP) RIGHT: U.S. astronaut Randy Bresnik waves to his family before launch last July. (Shamil Zhumatov/AP)

Perhaps most disorienting is that at Baikonur the astronauts aren’t clued in to the countdown. They get a five-minute warning. Then one minute. But then the seconds tick by in silence, until the engines begin to rumble beneath them.

“There’s a lot of superstition,” Williams says. “There’s a lot of tradition. . . . And when you think about it, it’s pretty cool.”

Even christening the tire, which can be tricky for female astronauts: “I got some of my urine on the tire — put it that way,” she says. “I was sticking with tradition.”

The Florida Space Coast has its traditions as well, like the prelaunch parties on the beach that may not be as raucous as they once were, but still endure.

“When you’re launching from the Kennedy Space Center, you feel the support of the country behind you because there’s a ton of people,” Williams says. In Baikonur, the number of visitors is limited. But in Florida, “all your friends and family get in their cars and their campers and make their way down.”

She now hopes they’ll gather again just as they used to. On the sunny coast of Florida, where the waves lap not far from the launchpad, the hotels and bars along the four-lane Cocoa Beach strip have, for years, served as a sort of fraternity row for the tourists lining the beach, just down the road from Disney World.

It is here on the beaches and causeways that tens of thousands would gather, all chanting the anthem of the Florida Space Coast in unison: “3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .”

WhiteKnightTwo, carrying SpaceShipTwo, is reflected in the exterior of a hangar during a dedication for Virgin Galactics Spaceport America in New Mexico in 2011. Billionaire entrepreneurs are racing to make space tourism viable for the masses. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

‘All kinds of people going into space’

Soon, they may gather somewhere else as well: In the deserts of New Mexico and West Texas; in Mojave, Calif.; and along the Gulf of Mexico, in the secluded retreats where the billionaires are building their private spaceports.

The most stunning of these is New Mexico’s Spaceport America, which Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been promising for years would become a destination for the tourists who for as much as $250,000 a ticket would go on a thrill ride to the edge of space.

So far, more than 700 have signed up, the company says, more than the 560 or so people who have been to space. In 2014, the company suffered a major setback when its spacecraft came apart in midair during a test flight, killing the co-pilot in a blow that set the company back years.

Now it is flying again, and on May 29 its new spacecraft flew supersonic for the second time from its test site in Mojave, roaring closer to the edge of space, making it 22 miles high.

Just over 200 miles away, in the West Texas desert, Bezos’s Blue Origin has built its own launch site, where it, too, plans to fly tourists just past the edge of space. Across the state in Brownsville, SpaceX is building a private launch site of its own.

Axiom, a Houston-based company that is building a commercial space station, recently advertised 10-day trips to the International Space Station for $55 million a stay, starting in 2020.

The companies have different approaches and ambitions, but all want to open up space for the masses, to create a new generation of astronauts far different from the ones NASA has been producing since the dawn of the Space Age. It would be an era in which voyages may be not just about collective achievement, but the opportunity for private individuals to go.

“I’m completely supportive of all kinds of people going into space. I mean that’s the whole point of what we’re trying to go do,” says Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin. “We want poets, we want artists, we want journalists, we want all kinds of people to go out there because we believe strongly that there is this thing called the ‘overview effect,’ where people get a better perspective of where they live.”

As she prepares for her third trip to space, NASA’s Williams says that she, for one, is all for that.

Earth is seen from the International Space Station. Many astronauts have spoken of the overview effect and how seeing the planet from space can change their perspective. (Scott Kelly/NASA)

“I wish everyone on this planet would have an opportunity to take a lap around the Earth, just one time at least,” she says. “And just see what it looks like from there.”

Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin hope to have their first test flights with humans to space later this year.

That breakthrough could come before Williams and her colleagues launch into space. That would mean the people restoring human spaceflight from U.S. soil won’t be NASA astronauts at all, but the private executives and their customers who have become the new celebrities of America’s foray into the cosmos.

Credits: Story by Christian Davenport. Video by Whitney Leaming. Graphics by Aaron Steckelberg. Designed by Courtney Kan. Photo Editing by Marisa Schwartz Taylor.