Denver — Commercial spaceflight will be here sooner than most people imagine.
That is the conviction of David Stoddard and more than 500 other commercial airline pilots. They are among the founding members of a new group called the American -Society of Aerospace Pilots, a group formed to prepare today's commercial aviation pilots to be tomorrow's space shuttle jockeys and, more generally, to promote the commercial use of space.
The acronym of the group is ASAP, which is also slang for ''as soon as possible.''
''That's why we chose the name. That's how soon we want to get started,'' says Mr. Stoddard, a United Airlines pilot with a fetching grin and a build like a football tailback.
''Within three years some of us will be flying the shuttle,'' he predicts confidently.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spokesmen are more circumspect, pointing out that the group's activities are strictly unofficial, that there are a number of astronauts currently in the program who would be in line ahead of ASAP members, and that any ASAP pilots who want to fly the shuttle would have to go through NASA's astronaut selection and training program.
Despite NASA's sometimes tepid enthusiasm, the pilots are convinced the shuttle will be so successful and the demand for its services so high that the agency will have difficulty training enough astronauts.
NASA has cooperated with the group to the extent of providing it with technical information on the shuttle. United Airlines training personnel are rewriting the information to make it more palatable to commercial pilots, and ASAP is offering it to members as a shuttle ground school. (In aviation parlance , a ground school is a classroom course.)
The home study course will cover such topics as spacecraft design and navigation, orbital mechanics, mission planning, shuttle systems, and shuttle payload handling. The ambitious curriculum will cost about $2,000 and should take each pilot an average of two years to finish, Stoddard says.
ASAP is an outgrowth of a committee of the United Airlines branch of the Air Line Pilots Association. Originally, only senior United Airlines pilots could join. But, because of the interest they have received, they opened ASAP membership to all pilots; even nonpilots can be associate members. So far, local chapters have been formed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, and Denver.
In addition to the ground school, these nonprofit groups are beginning to sponsor seminars on various space topics and sight-seeing trips to shuttle launches. In the future, they hope to gain access to NASA's shuttle flight simulators and other advanced aspects of its training program.
The pilots' optimism about opportunities in the wild black yonder are closely tied to expectations that NASA will turn over routine shuttle operations to the private sector in the near future. This week NASA is expected to begin seeking proposals from the private sector for the job of preparing shuttles for each flight. Also, the space agency has been discussing a proposition from the Space Transportation Company of New Jersey, which has offered to put up the money for a fifth orbiter in return for the marketing rights for the entire fleet.
While NASA has studied the possibility of turning over all shuttle operations to a commercial operator so it could focus its resources on a project like a manned space station, NASA spokesmen say they have no immediate plans for such a step.
Still, ''it's a natural progression of our jobs,'' says Stoddard. He foresees astronauts as keeping their job as space test pilots in research and development programs, while aerospace pilots take over routine operations.
While the pilots may be optimistic about how soon they will be able to sit behind the shuttle's controls, ASAP is one of a number of signs that space travel is gradually coming of age.
Those interested in more information can contact: The American Society of Aerospace Pilots, 1305 Remington Road, Suite 1, Schaumburg, Ill. 60195.