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

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    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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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.

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.

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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.

"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."

* * *

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

"We started out with this very small number of people," says Dr. Hersch. "They were immediately put in front of the press and used by NASA to compensate for the fact that the human spaceflight program wasn't very far advanced." While the photogenic astronauts captivated the public with their test pilot skills and prowess, NASA engineers struggled to harness rocket science and bend it to their designs.

Astronauts selected through the 1960s lived up to their billing, "engaging in record-breaking flights on virtually every mission," Hersch says. They became overnight celebrities. Watching liftoffs on rabbit-eared TVs was a national event, akin to a Super Bowl. Ticker-tape parades were held in the astronauts' honor. They became symbols of the US superpower competition with the Soviet Union.

That all changed in the 1970s as the Apollo program drew to a close. In 1972, President Nixon approved plans to develop a fleet of space shuttles. Three years later, the US conducted a joint mission with the Soviets – epitomizing the new détente between the two countries – docking an Apollo spacecraft with a Soyuz module. After that, the US would have no vehicle to take astronauts into space for six years, until the first shuttle flight in 1981.

"NASA came very close to discharging a bunch of astronauts because it wouldn't need them for the foreseeable future," says Hersch.

At the time, even the astronauts sensed that their celebrity status was ending. Over the years, as NASA's human-spaceflight program has grown and added layers of management, astronauts have become more like interchangeable members of yet another small, highly motivated, and skilled 21st-century workforce. Now, with the end of the shuttle program months away, the astronaut corps is experiencing changes common to many Americans: an employer phasing out an old product line and trying to figure out what it will do next, inevitably with fewer workers.

* * *

As the corps downsizes, some astronauts are looking for work with private rocketeers. Earlier this year, for instance, astronaut Garrett Reisman left the space agency to work for Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which is under contract with NASA to provide unmanned resupply flights to the space station and wants to provide rides for astronauts as well. He joins former astronaut Ken Bowersox, who signed on with the Hawthorne, Calif., company in 2009 in a managerial role.

Others hope to keep their spacesuits on as they move to the private sector. "Every one of us professional astronauts is thinking: Hey, what does the future hold?" says Michael "Spanky" Fincke, a mission specialist on Endeavour's last flight who has also served two tours on the ISS.

As commercial space firms mature, he says, they will be sending up their own astronauts and opening up a whole new frontier. "Each and every one of us have thought about that and said: 'Hey, will that fit for me? Will that fit for my family?' " he said during a prelaunch briefing.

The possibility of having a pool of NASA astronauts available for hire is something that would be welcomed by George Whitesides. He's the president and chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic, founded by Sir Richard Branson to offer suborbital flights from a spaceport in southern New Mexico. In April, the company posted its first help-wanted ad – three openings for pilot-astronauts. Mr. Whitesides says he's already had "strong interest" in flight-crew positions among some NASA astronauts who have served as shuttle commanders or pilots.

The private sector also offers the opportunity for people to become astronauts who didn't come up through NASA's ranks. David Mackay, Virgin Galactic's chief pilot, grew up in a remote village in northern Scotland where the military frequently ran training flights. Later, he became captivated with becoming an astronaut after watching the Apollo moon landings. He followed the usual path in trying to do that – becoming a military test pilot.

"It was only when I got into my 30s that I thought: This is never going to happen in the UK," he says. Now, after 16 years in the Royal Air Force and another 14 piloting Boeing 747s and Airbus 340s for Virgin Atlantic, he is setting up the company's astronaut program and will be one of the first pilots for both the passenger rocket, Spaceship 2, and its jet-powered mother ship, White Knight 2. "I find myself in this amazing position," he says.

The demand for commercial astronauts could grow as private companies expand beyond just ferrying high-end tourists into space. In late February, the Southwest Research Institute signed contracts with Virgin Galactic and California-based XCOR Aerospace, another company building craft for suborbital flights, for as many as 17 launches that will focus on scientific research. To Alan Stern, an associate vice president with the nonprofit institute, entrepreneurial space firms could eventually carry out hundreds of flights per year that will dramatically reduce the cost of doing suborbital experiments.

"I'm looking forward to the day when we have a whole bunch of astronauts that people barely remember" because the commercial sector has opened new opportunities, "not just for us NASA types, but for the population at large," says NASA's Mr. Fincke.

Still, for all the talk of making space a common place to work and play, it will always be a singular environment – and the people who command the vehicles part of a singular fraternity. A launch into space always contains elements of a launch into the unknown. As NASA astronaut Sunita Williams puts it: "You never really train for space."

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