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After the space shuttle, astronaut corps awaits a new mission

NASA's once-iconic astronaut corps will shrink but still play a vital role as the space shuttle era comes to an end.

By Staff writer / May 16, 2011

In this image provided by NASA, the space shuttle Discovery is seen from the International Space Station as the two orbital spacecraft accomplish their relative separation on March 7 after an aggregate of 12 astronauts and cosmonauts worked together for over a week. The area below is the southwestern coast of Morocco in the northern Atlantic.

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Houston

Inside a cavernous hall, a nose-to-tail replica of a space shuttle fuselage rests like a beached whale on a floor nearly two football fields long. It shares the space with a large mock-up of the International Space Station, a Russian Soyuz capsule, scaffolding, smoke machines, and other tools of the spaceflight-training trade.

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When astronauts stride into the hall for a practice session here at NASA's Johnson Space Center, they pass a partition hosting large mug shots of assigned crews, with the shuttle team closest to launch in the "prime" position.

"To the crew members, it's a big deal to get on that wall," says Tim Reynolds, who has managed the facility through 62 shuttle flights and 27 space-station crews.

Even before the wheels of a shuttle touch down on the runway at the end of a flight, he says, the next crew is in line, saying: "Get over here; get those has-beens off the wall!"

With Endeavour's final shuttle mission now underway (it launched Monday, May 16), the queue waiting for the prime spot on "Tim's Wall" has all but vanished. One crew remains to launch aboard the shuttle Atlantis in late June, federal budgets willing.

It's the beginning of the end of the US astronaut corps as generations of Americans have known it. Fifty years after its birth, the astronaut program – one of America's most iconic ventures and an integral part of the nation's self-image – is undergoing a transformation.

The program, to be sure, won't vanish. But as the final two shuttles – the astronauts' main ride into space – are retired and funding for space ventures dwindles, the nation's astronaut corps will become smaller, its role redefined, and more of the space duties likely turned over to private firms.

The move will accelerate the corps's transition from a group once dominated by test pilots to one increasingly made up of scientists and specialists who can live on the International Space Station (ISS) for extended periods, conducting experiments and doing everything from cleaning air filters to cooking meals.

Nor will the astronauts likely be as visible. In the early years of the space program, they were national heroes – John Waynes in moon suits. Virtually everything they did was pioneering – the first American to journey around the Earth, the first American spacewalk, the first human on the moon. To this day, Neil Armstrong's line – "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" – is one of the most quoted phrases in the English language. The astronauts graced the cover of magazines. Books were written about them.

With the advent of the shuttle program, journeys into space became more regular, the feats more commonplace. Today, as the astronauts undergo another transition, their identities may become even more anonymous, their work more quotidian, to the extent working 210 miles above Earth can be quotidian. Yet the astronaut corps remains a source of fascination to many Americans – and will remain an integral, if diminishing, part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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