WITH the space shuttle flying again and the international agreement to build the space station Freedom signed, you won't have to work for a government agency to be an astronaut in the 1990s. Aspiring space travelers can follow the precedent set by McDonnell Douglas engineer Charles D. Walker. He flew three shuttle missions to tend his company's electrophoresis protein purification experiment on orbit. ``I see a merging of the career astronaut and the career scientist-engineer,'' says Christopher J. Podsiadly, who heads the 3M Company Science Research Laboratories. His group has flown several experiments that were activated by NASA astronauts on shuttle missions, including the recent Discovery flight.
Clarke Covington, manager of the Space Station Projects Office at the Johnson Space Center, agrees. He explains: ``If you're going to be in the 30 year up [age group] - maybe in your late 20s - in the late 1990s, you're probably just about right ... to be a candidate to fly. And you don't have to work for NASA to do it, either. Working for a company that's going to make something in space, you've got a good chance of at least being eligible.''
It will, of course, be a grand adventure for those who do qualify for space travel. But Podsiadly and Covington aren't talking about an ``exotic'' job. They are talking about a normal career for research scientists and engineers whose laboratory happens, sometimes, to be in space.
Speaking of his own group's type of work, Podsiadly says he has no doubt that ``microgravity materials processing is the wave of the future.'' But, he adds, as this develops, the space station ``will just be another spot where we do our work.''
The key that unlocks the door to such a space-oriented career is ``the right educational background and experience,'' Covington notes. That means a solid, normal education in the scientific or engineering profession to be pursued in space.
Podsiadly says that people who want to fly with experiments on the shuttle or work on Freedom should be acquiring that necessary background now. This is true whether they will be working with United States companies and universities or with institutions in space-station partner countries - Canada, Japan, and members of the European Space Agency.
NASA will use its own professional astronauts as it returns the shuttle system to full operation over the next few years. But the agency has already organized a task force to help work out its policy for allowing other astronauts to fly in the 1990s.
It's too soon to know when NASA might resume its aborted teacher-in-space and journalist-in-space programs. But in the next century - less than a dozen years away - such ventures should become commonplace.
Young people planning their education and careers may wonder how much of a gamble they would take in aiming for astronaut status. They have seen one accident derail the United States space program for 2 years. They see the space station program slowed down by underfunding and lack of strong political leadership.
``I don't think it's a gamble at all,'' says Covington. He adds: ``It's going to happen. And [Freedom station] is going to be there.''
So if you're interested in working in space, it's worth your while to start preparing now.
A Tuesday column