April 6, 2010
With this week's news story about the successful launch of the Discovery space shuttle came a somewhat worrisome reminder that an era may be coming to an end.
There will be only three more manned launches subsequent to this one. After that, the program will be put to bed, possibly leaving many of NASA's astronauts without a mission.
Currently, NASA has about 80 active astronauts, plus nine astronaut candidates who were hired last year. In a typical year, about half a dozen astronauts leave the agency, says Chris Ferguson, former space shuttle commander and now deputy chief of NASA's astronaut office, in an NPR broadcast. But once the shuttles stop flying it is likely that more of them will switch to other careers such as teaching, aerospace industry work or other government jobs.
Until earlier this year, many of NASA's astronauts were readying themselves to take part in the Constellation program, which was approved by George W. Bush and is designed to send a new generation of spacecraft to the International Space Station, the Moon, and possibly to Mars. However, with Obama's proposed cancelling of this initiative, NASA astronauts are now uncertain about their future.
One option would be for them to work for the space centers of other countries (such as Russia) or for private sector contractors who, under Obama's revised plan would receive federal funding to develop space taxis to fly on low Earth orbit missions. According to AOL News, Scott Horowitz, a former astronaut now working as an aerospace consultant and lobbyist, acknowledges that plenty of talented ex-fighter-pilots and ex-astronauts could fly the private spaceships, but he worries that private companies may not prepare astronauts adequately since they do not have NASA's vast training infrastructure and expertise.
One private company, at least, is aware of its limitations and is taking a proactive approach. The New York Daily News reports that Bigelow Aerospace has announced that it's hiring astronauts to fly people and equipment to the company's planned low Earth orbit space complex, as well as for work on the ground in mission control and other positions. However, the company specifies that only astronauts who have been trained by the government or a recognized space agency training program need apply.
Meanwhile, many NASA officials remain dubious about what the agency and the responsibilities of its astronauts will be. "We need to have the discussion of what the future the next generation of astronauts will be like," says NASA administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden. Fortunately, Obama's space proposal, if approved by Congress, will include funding for an independent review of the astronaut corps to look at its role and size once the space shuttle is retired.
In any case, it looks like many a young boy or girl who aspires to become an astronaut one day may find his/her dreams dashed.
Compiled by Abigail Rome