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 4 of 6)
"I dreamed of living on a space station when I was a kid," he says. Even so, he has had to adjust to a dramatically new training regimen. "A shuttle crew is kind of a sprint crew," he says. During a mission, "You've got a short time – two weeks – to get a lot done. You train together as a really tight unit. Because you train together over the course of about a year, you become really close."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures After the Space Shuttle
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
While shuttle training involves some travel and the hours can be long, training is still conducted largely in Houston, near family and friends. Space-station training "came as a little bit of a surprise," he acknowledges. Training for a posting to the space station takes at least 2-1/2 years, "and for a lot of it, you're alone in different corners of the globe."
As a result, a space station assignment can be like a military posting – with long road trips during training and six months out on the job (in this case orbit). A returning astronaut also faces a period of physical rehabilitation after a half year floating weightless in space and, perhaps most important, reintegration into a family that has adapted to living without Mom or Dad.
Following Fossum's last shuttle mission in 2008, Steve Lindsay, then head of the astronaut office, called the astronaut in and handed him his next flight assignment – six months on the space station. "There was a family meeting before I accepted the assignment," Fossum recalls. "I got my family and my mother together at the dining-room table and said: 'OK, here's the deal.' Everybody was kind of like: Oh boy – afraid this was coming."
Those dinner-table conversations may only become more frequent. As budgets tighten and the program becomes focused on the space station, astronauts may find themselves taking multiple trips to their "office" in the heavens – both out of demand and because it's part of their DNA. Fossum recalls meeting up with friend and cosmonaut Oleg Kotov in Houston only a few months after Mr. Kotov returned from his first posting on the space station in October 2007.
"I said: 'Oleg, what are you doing?' " Fossum recalls.
"I'm training; I'm assigned again," Dr. Kotov replied.
"I can't believe you're doing that. I'm not sure I could," Fossum replied, referring to the quick reassignment to another long-duration mission.
Then, Fossum adds, "He looked at me, and he smiled and said: 'You will, Mike. It's what we do.' "
* * *
Human spaceflight, as its practitioners repeatedly emphasize, is never routine. Yet Kotov's observation has a ring of regularity to it: up and back, up and back, within the framework of systematic crew rotations, more akin to those of highly skilled but usually anonymous airline pilots or Navy submariners than a Charles Lindbergh or "Wrong Way" Corrigan.
Astronauts "are not household names any more, and that's one of the most interesting transitions in the program," says Matthew Hersch, a space historian on a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In 1959, while rocket boosters in the nascent US space program were still exploding on the pad, NASA selected the Mercury Seven.