HOUSTON — 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.
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.
One, a modified Gulfstream, has a cockpit configured to duplicate that of the shuttle. It also has software designed to make the aircraft respond to the pilot just as the shuttle would. Another, a modified KC-135, roars out over the Gulf of Mexico and spends up to three hours flying steep parabola-shaped patterns to give trainees in the cabin 40 repeats of 20- to 25-second periods of weightlessness. The makers of last year's Hollywood hit "Apollo 13" used the aircraft to film some of the gravityless scenes.
Once candidates complete the year-long training, they are eligible for a shuttle flight assignment. When that assignment comes, they begin mission-specific training. For pilots, this extra training can last up to a year. For mission specialists, the added training can last up to 18 months and include preparations for spacewalks or the use of the shuttle's robotic arm for releasing or retrieving satellites. Trainers devise rigorous simulations to prepare the crews and the ground-based flight controllers for just about any problem they might encounter while in orbit.
Only 214 astronauts
Though Americans have been traveling into space since 1965, NASA has fielded only 214 astronauts. Nine more currently are in training, and another class will be chosen in August.
"It's a glamorous job," Herring, says. "But unless you're a real space fan, you're not going to recognize an astronaut walking down the street."
Even the younger generation is less enamored of spaceflight than its predecessors. Twenty-five years ago, an astronaut helmet was the headgear of choice for little boys. Today, toy-store employees scratch their heads when asked for a helmet.
"I don't even remember seeing them for Halloween," says the manager of a Houston Kay Bee Toy store. "You'd probably have to go to a costume shop."
If pollsters are to be believed, kids would rather be like Michael Jordan than Neil Armstrong. In a 1993 BKG Youth/Nintendo survey, for example, 5,000 young people ages 9 to 18 were asked who they would most like to trade places with. They had a choice of five occupations. "Professional athlete" topped the list at 37 percent. "NASA astronaut" placed last at 7 percent.
A Time Warner survey the year before found that fewer than 5 percent of a thousand 8- to 12-year-olds wanted to become astronauts. By contrast, 8 percent wanted to be lawyers.
"I think it has become an accepted part of our society," says three-time shuttle astronaut Karol Bobko, who now works at a Houston management engineering firm. "You don't perhaps have as many kids who think about it."
Another gauge of astronauts' underlying popularity comes in the form of requests - more than 200 a month - for speeches at schools and public functions.
Pup tents in space?
In addition, since 1982 more than 210,000 youths have graduated from Space Camp and Space Academy at Huntsville, Ala.
Originally conceived by Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientists who helped pioneer liquid-fuel rockets, the week-long programs use the excitement of space exploration to encourage students to concentrate on their education, particularly in math and science. Along the way, attendees learn the principles of rocketry, propulsion, space science, and the history of space exploration.
Few doubt, however, that the main reason children attend Space Camp is to fly the shuttle simulator, participate in a mission to Mars, and get a taste of astronaut training.
"I would have given my right arm to come to a place like this when I saw Alan Shepard and John Glenn and those Mercury Astronauts," says Ed Davis, media-relations manager for Space Camp.
He notes that a survey taken a few years ago found that as a group, Space Camp graduates were studying more science and math in school than their peers. Former attendees have since written to say they were completing their degrees in aeronautics.
"One day, we'll have a graduate become a member of the astronaut corps," Mr. Davis says. "There hasn't been enough time passed yet. But it will happen."