Archive for Monday, July 18, 2011

NASA’s corps of astronauts shrinks to 60 as shuttles stop

July 18, 2011

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— NASA’s mighty astronaut corps has become a shadow of what it once was. And it’s only going to get smaller.

It’s down to 60 from an all-time high of 149 just a decade ago, with more departures coming once Atlantis returns this week from the very last space shuttle voyage.

With no replacement on the horizon for the shuttle, astronauts are bailing fast, even though the International Space Station will need crews for at least another decade.

The commander of Discovery’s last flight back in March, Steven Lindsey? Gone to a company whose proposed commercial spacecraft resembles a mini-shuttle; his last day at NASA was Friday.

The skipper of Endeavour’s last mission in May, Mark Kelly? Retiring in another few months to write a memoir with his wounded congresswoman wife, Gabrielle Giffords.

The captain of Atlantis, Christopher Ferguson, assured The Associated Press from orbit late last week that he’ll be sticking around after this final shuttle journey of them all. At least one of his crew, though, isn’t so sure.

After spending her childhood wanting to be an astronaut — and achieving that goal in 1996 — Atlantis astronaut Sandra Magnus now has to figure out what the next chapter holds.

“Now that I’m an astronaut, the whole idea of what I want to do when I grow up comes back full circle,” said Magnus, a scientist and former space station resident who’s flown in space three times.

What a difference a decade makes.

Down from the biggest group ever

NASA’s fabled astronaut corps numbered 149 in 2000-2001, the biggest group ever. Then shuttles were zooming back and forth building the space station, and a crew was being groomed to fly aboard Columbia to the Hubble Space Telescope. Now the space station is finished, Columbia is gone and the 30-year shuttle program is ending.

These days, chief astronaut Peggy Whitson finds herself on overdrive, working hard to keep up the morale at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, astronaut headquarters, while trying to convince outsiders that America still needs a robust astronaut corps in the shuttle-less era.

After all, she’s got a space station to staff.

Two Americans usually are among the six people living on the orbiting lab at any given time, hitching rides up and down on Russian Soyuz capsules. Private U.S. companies hope to take over this taxi job in three to five years, freeing NASA up to explore true outer space. First the goal was the moon, now it’s an asteroid and Mars.

“It’s a very dynamic time, and a lot of folks aren’t real comfortable with all the uncertainties,” Whitson said. “None of us are.”

Not such a surprise

Ferguson observed from space Friday that former military pilots make up about one-third of the astronaut corps, so he’s not surprised so many commander types are departing.

“Pilots like to do what pilots like to do, and that’s fly airplanes,” the retired Navy captain told the AP.

Whitson — herself a two-time space station resident — figures she needs 55 to 60 active astronauts “at a bare minimum and for pretty much the duration.” She said she has to account for absences due to injury, illness, pregnancy, even maxed-out exposure to cosmic radiation.

The National Research Council is evaluating just how many astronauts America really needs. A report by a committee of retired NASA leaders, ex-astronauts and others is expected next month.

Depending on the findings, NASA may start taking applications soon for a new, albeit small, astronaut class. No matter the size, there will be plenty of applicants, all eager to join this exclusive club.

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