Space shuttle allows NASA to tap new breed of astronaut-specialist
Houston — Geologist Kathryn D. Sullivan typifies the evolution in astronaut selection that has accompanies the revolution in spacecraft represented by the shuttle Columbia, scheduled to be launched from Cape Canaveral April 10.
This is not because of her sex -- but because she is primarily a scientist, not a test pilot.
In the United States spaceflight phase that ended with the Apollo moon missions, people attracted to and trained for taking risks were given high priority in astronaut recruiting. Chiefly, military test pilots got the nod because of their demonstrated flying skills.
Although the two men who will be aboard when the space shuttle lifts off on its maiden voyage -- John W. Young, commander, and Robert L. Crippen, pilot -- are experienced Navy fighter pilots, a new breed of astronaut-mission specialists is being trained for subsequent trips into space. These are men and women of various scientific and engineering backgrounds who will be able to operate equipment, perform experiments, and conduct research while orbiting earth.
New Jersey-born Dr. Kathryn Sullivan is one of 33 mission specialists training for future shuttle flights. Another 47 astronauts are training to be pilots on shuttle missions, aside from Young and Crippen. Several test flights will be conducted before mission specialists are allowed to fly, but eventually the vehicle may carry five such specialists.
It is the mission specialists who will make the reusable space shuttle -- at a cost of almost $19 billion so far -- earn its keep by performing functions in space that previously were uneconomical.
Dr. Sullivan insists that despite her scientific background, "first and foremost I am an astronaut." Much of her training here at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center parallels that of the pilot astronauts who will fly shuttle missions. They all must become thoroughly knowledgeable about how the shuttle operates.
Yet, with training as a scientist, Dr. Sullivan and the other mission specialists "provide a unique combination of being able to marry the capabilities of the vehicle to the needs of the scientist," she explains.
Indeed, while mission specialists may be trained in particular fields, their greatest service will be as generalists. They will be able to work with various types of payloads on shuttle flights, from satellites to medical testing devices , as well as help shuttle users understand its limitations and potential.
Still, a particular academic training may come in handy on some flights. "I could be useful in experimenting with new astronomical detectors. Before they are put on a satellite, we could try them on the shuttle," notes astronomer Jeffrey A. Hoffman, a mission specialist.
Dr. Sullivan, as another example, could help private industry development satellite technology best suited to better understanding a particular earth resource.
The fact the shuttle is designed to perform work functions in space has made a more diversified group of astronauts a necessity. But the changing qualifications for flying are also a function of what has been learned from past manned space flights.
"The astronaut business was highly emotional in the early days," says Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, a retired National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) official who was involved in the selection of the first corps of astronauts in 1959. Little was known then about how man would react in the space environment without gravity.
Sringent physical requirements and rigorous training sprang from these concerns. Early astronauts were left in the jungle and desert to learn survival techniques. They were exposed to high levels of heat, cold, and gravitational forces to see how the human body responded.
Since the first manned US space flight in 1961, however, space has been found to be more benign than many expected. And the physical stress of flying in the shuttle is considerably less than earlier space vehicles because it has less acceleration.
NASA's program has changed in another respect, says Alan L. Bean, chief of astronaut training at the Johnson Space Center. Today there is more emphasis on teaching astronauts ground-related administrative functions. "We learned about rocket engines and flying in space," says Mr. Bean a veteran astronaut. "Now, we teach [astronauts] how to be effective in the overall development of the space program."
Still, Dr. Sullivan concedes her eagerness to fly: "The thing you look most forward to is getting a flight assignment; it's hard for me to sit still."