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.
(Page 3 of 6)
Further reductions may be coming. At the request of NASA administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden Jr., a panel picked by the National Academies' Aeronautics and Space Engineering board will recommend changes to the role and size of the astronaut corps and activities that support it as the shuttle program ends. Its report is due out in August.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures After the Space Shuttle
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Shrinking opportunities to leave the planet has brought a kind of self-selection process to the corps as astronauts weigh whether to leave the agency. The decision is informed in no small part by the different demands of shuttle and space-station missions.
"We have had a grand tradition of test pilots and scientists" serving as astronauts from the beginning of NASA's human-spaceflight program, says astronaut Sunita Williams, who has served as deputy head of the astronaut office and is slated for a six-month stint on the space station beginning in the spring of 2012 – her second tour on the ISS.
But service on the orbiting laboratory imposes a need for an additional set of general skills. "People not only have a specialty in their fields," she says, "they also have an ability to adapt, step back, and take a look at the big picture, and try to be a little bit of a jack of all trades."
That means an astronaut with a pilot's background also will do research, fix computers, repair plumbing, go on spacewalks, and operate the station's robotic arm. Adaptability and patience in working with others are vital.
"We're not looking for just a pilot," says Captain Williams, who retains her commission in the US Navy. "They're up there for six months, and they owe the taxpayers a productive day."
Keeping penned-up astronauts productive also means giving them time for personal pursuits – from playing guitar to watching movies. Cady Coleman, currently serving on the station, packed a flute and wound up playing a duet recently with earthbound flutist Ian Anderson from the rock group Jethro Tull to mark the 50th anniversary of the first human in space (Russian Yuri Gagarin). It conjures up images of a possible new single, "Thick as a Shuttle Brick," that could go on a CD titled "Astrolung."
Beyond the need for a generalist's hands-on skills, astronauts accustomed to shuttle operations face starkly different conditions as they prepare for space-station work. Those differences can weigh heavily in their decision about whether to remain in the corps.
Mike Fossum, a veteran of two shuttle missions since the Columbia tragedy, heads to the ISS in May. He is in a fairly unique position: Over those two shuttle missions he took part in spacewalks that helped assemble the station; now he's going to live in it.