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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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