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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.

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"We still will have some opportunities" for new recruits, says Peggy Whitson, chief of the astronaut corps. "We need to maintain the new blood coming in. We want the new faces."

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To a certain extent, Dr. Whitson embodies the new breed of astronaut today. She holds a PhD in biochemistry. She also holds the record for NASA for most days in orbit. She acknowledges it's a challenging time for a corps whose exploits and tragedies – from the lunar landings to the space-suited assembly of the largest structure ever built in orbit to the breakup of the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger – have touched millions of Americans over the years.

The current debates in Washington over the future of NASA's human-spaceflight enterprise and the increasingly loud cries for deep budget cuts from deficit hawks in Congress have left NASA and the corps "without a clear definition of what we should be doing," says Whitson. "We're an action-oriented group. We like to take something and pound the details out to make it work. The times when we don't have a clear direction are the most difficult times. And it's an unclear time right now."

NASA has been preparing for the end of the shuttle program and a downsized astronaut corps since January 2004, nearly a year after the Columbia disaster, when the orbiter broke up on reentry, killing its seven-member crew. At the time, President George W. Bush unveiled his vision for space exploration. It called for terminating the shuttle program in 2010, an end to US involvement in the ISS in 2015, and the development of two rockets, one of which could deliver a crew of four to low-Earth orbit by 2014.

To bridge the gap between the shuttle program's end and the first launch of the next generation of rockets, dubbed Ares 1, NASA bought seats on Russia's Soyuz craft to deliver US crews to the space station. The plan also envisioned US boots on the moon once again by 2020.

Now that day, if it comes at all, has been pushed still further into the future under President Obama's controversial effort to establish a US space program that is financially "sustainable." Astronauts will ride to space on Russian capsules longer than President Bush had envisioned. The United States will remain part of the space-station partnership at least through 2020. And the agency aims to build a single rocket before the decade is out that can make the trip to the space station as well as send astronauts to more distant destinations after 2020 – an asteroid, the moon, and eventually Mars. Even then, explorer-astronauts for those types of trips would likely be far fewer in number than even a space-station-only corps.

In short, astronauts will be seeing far fewer mug shots on Tim's wall. From a peak of more than 100 active astronauts in 2000, the number now stands at 65. The astronaut candidate class of 1996, which included Whitson as well as the current shuttle mission's commander, Mark Kelly, saw 35 people competing to make the corps, in addition to 11 would-be space farers from other nations partnering with the US on the space station. In 2009, the agency accepted just nine men and women (out of 3,500 applicants) for the two-year astronaut basic training program.

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