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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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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.

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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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