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Astronaut Corps Retains Its Allure But Hero Status Has Lower Orbit

By Matt SchwartzSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 1996


THE loss of the space shuttle Challenger and its crew 10 years ago underscored the high-risk nature of manned spaceflight. But that hasn't thinned the crowds lining up to fly aboard the shuttle.

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Nearly 2,500 people, mostly civilians, apply to become astronauts every couple of years, according to NASA. The second most-asked question the space agency hears - after whether there really are UFOs - is: How can I take a ride on the space shuttle?

But there has been a change in public perceptions. The astronaut corps hasn't so much lost its allure as its identity. Today, when the shuttle goes up, half-a-billion people aren't glued to their TVs as they were when men went to the moon. Shuttling astronauts up with high-tech wrenches to build a space station doesn't have the same marketing potential as strapping three guys to a Saturn rocket and hurtling them into the sky to explore the great beyond.

The shift in perception can be vividly seen among children.

Last week, two- dozen third-graders from Jasper, a small town north of Houston impatiently waited for a turn at the Manned Maneuvering exhibit at the Houston Space Center, an interactive museum that attracted 750,000 visitors last year.

Asked if they wanted to be astronauts, they bounced up and down like the Apollo capsule splashing down in the Atlantic: "When do we go?"

Asked if they could name any astronauts, they shouted out "Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin." How about the latest crew of the shuttle Endeavor? Shrugs all around.

This month's flight of the shuttle Endeavour was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's 105th manned mission.

Yet despite the space agency's efforts to educate the public to the contrary, many people have come to view such flights as routine. The Houston Chronicle, the lone daily newspaper in a town synonymous with spaceflight, routinely bumps shuttle stories to the inside pages.

Currently, NASA has scheduled seven to eight missions a year. Many are crammed with scientific instruments; others are geared to preparing for the international space station.

After the Challenger accident, NASA postponed indefinitely its plans to send civilians into space because of the risk and the expense, NASA spokesman Kyle Herring says.

A teacher waits

If and when the agency decides to allow a civilian to fly again, Barbara Morgan will be the first in line. Ms. Morgan, a teacher, was Christa McAuliffe's backup on the Challenger mission. Morgan still returns each year for a flight physical, Herring says.

Many applicants volunteer, but few are chosen. Out of the 2,500 people who apply to join the astronaut corps, only about 120 are interviewed for 20 slots. NASA sometimes gives those who fail to survive the final cut another job at the agency so program officials can get to know the applicants better. Many of those chosen for astronaut training come from the ranks of NASA employees.

The requirements are stiff. Candidates must be US citizens and hold advanced degrees in engineering, science, or mathematics and have at least three years of related experience. Most candidates have PhDs.

"There are people who have applied up to three times and not been selected and eventually did get picked," Herring says. "They got more education or their work situation changed over time, and that improved their chances."

Applicants interested in actually piloting the huge shuttles must have logged at least 1,000 hours at the controls of jet aircraft - and so much the better if the time has been logged as a test pilot.

In addition, the agency imposes stringent physical requirements. Once selected, candidates undergo a year of general-purpose training and evaluation. The rookies learn every aspect of NASA and its history, as well as of the shuttle. They also engage in water and wilderness survival training in preparation for emergency landings.

Candidates for mission specialist and pilot also must log a specific number of hours in three types of NASA aircraft.