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  NASA needs more astronauts, report finds

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Author Topic:   NASA needs more astronauts, report finds
Robert Pearlman
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posted 09-07-2011 11:33 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
collectSPACE
NASA needs more astronauts, report finds

NASA's astronaut corps is too few in number, posing a risk to the U.S. investment in human spaceflight capabilities, a new report released Wednesday (Sept. 7) finds.

According to the National Research Council (NRC), which conducted the study at NASA's request, current plans for retaining and hiring astronauts do not provide "sufficient flexibility" to reliably meet the projected requirements of the International Space Station (ISS).

"With the retirement of the space shuttle program and the uncertainty during the transition to a fully operational ISS, it's even more important that the talent level, diversity, and capabilities of the astronaut office be sustained," Joe Rothenberg, co-chair of the NRC committee that wrote the report and a former senior NASA official, said. "Making sure NASA maintains adequate training facilities is also essential to ensure a robust astronaut corps."

Download the National Research Council report "Preparing for the High Frontier" from the National Academies Press.

cspg
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posted 09-07-2011 02:57 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for cspg   Click Here to Email cspg     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
And a new rocket/spacecraft?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 09-07-2011 03:09 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by cspg:
And a new rocket/spacecraft?
As the report states:
Although the future of NASA's human spaceflight program has garnered considerable discussion in recent years, and there is considerable uncertainty about what that program will involve in the coming years, the committee was not tasked to address whether or not human spaceflight should continue, or what form it should take...

Delta7
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posted 09-07-2011 03:47 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Delta7   Click Here to Email Delta7     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Wow. I would have expected just the opposite.

issman1
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posted 09-07-2011 04:34 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for issman1     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Unless the NASA hierarchy knows something, but can't or won't say, is there really a need to expand its Astronaut Corps?

The end of the shuttle notwithstanding, either NASA astronauts will be commanding commercial crew capsules - if those companies already came to some unspecified contractual agreement? Or the multipurpose crew vehicle and its launch system are a dead cert to happen - more likely than not if it was a 2012 election issue.

I've always wondered whether there were enough suitable volunteers for ISS crews, as NASA is now oversubscribed with military pilots (like ESA and Roscosmos).

It's fine, however, if SpaceX et al are happy to have them flying their birds, though they may prefer their own personnel. But I'm a bit confused by this report at the behest of NASA.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 09-07-2011 04:57 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The report does not address future programs, including the multi-purpose crew vehicle. It is focused only on current programs, i.e. the International Space Station, and the projected needs to support the current roles that astronauts fill on the ground and in space.

Here's the example provided by the Astronaut Office to the National Research Council in January 2011.

Crew Assignment Example — Need 2 Crewmembers
Exp 37/38 [ISS flight engineer (FE) & Soyuz right seat FE] and Exp 38/39 (ISS FE/Soyuz left seat FE)
  • 63 astronauts
  • 30 currently assigned to missions
    • 2 on-orbit
    • 15 assigned Shuttle
    • 10 assigned ISS
    • 3 in 6 month post-flight debrief and reconditioning period
  • 2 between 0.5 and 1.5 years from landing (long duration flight)
  • 12 need additional training (2 EVA; 11 Russian language)
  • 6 unavailable due to current job assignment
  • 2 pending medical evaluation/clearance for long-duration mission
  • 3 in 1.5-year forward plan for assignment as commander on upcoming ISS mission
  • 2 expected to leave the office soon
Leaves 6 available for 2 mission assignments [only subset of these qualified for Soyuz left seat FE-1 (co-pilot) role].
The NRC report addresses the many factors that can and do affect eligibility for station crew assignments and why having just six people available (if that many) for future assignment leaves the program in a precarious position.
quote:
Originally posted by issman1:
NASA is now oversubscribed with military pilots...
The Astronaut Office made it clear to the National Research Council, "if crewmembers do not qualify [for ISS long duration missions] based on training limitations or certification, they are no longer retained in the Astronaut Corps."

Hart Sastrowardoyo
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posted 09-07-2011 04:59 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Hart Sastrowardoyo   Click Here to Email Hart Sastrowardoyo     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I'm also confused. With one, maybe two seats available to NASA astronauts instead of four to seven until a commercial spacecraft comes along - and maybe even after that, with the left-hand seat being flown by a private commander - what's wrong with having 60 astronauts?

OK, so some will leave because of medical or personal issues, but recruit six astronauts (10 percent) every two years and won't you have enough to rotate people up and down ISS?

Why have a large astronaut corps, have someone wait 10 years to make a first flight - the 2-1/2 to 3 year training period at Star City notwithstanding - and then leave the corps because they can't foresee getting another flight opportunity for at least five years? At which point they have to decide between staying, having a family (or not be separated from them), or starting a second career.

Fra Mauro
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posted 09-07-2011 07:32 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Fra Mauro   Click Here to Email Fra Mauro     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Comparing NASA to a business for a moment, why hire more employees if you aren't certain of the need?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 09-07-2011 07:58 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The National Research Council committee identified the need (supporting the ongoing International Space Station program) based on the data provided to it by the Flight Crew Operations Directorate and the Astronaut Office.

Again, this is about the current needs of the program, not the future direction of human spaceflight.

MCroft04
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posted 09-07-2011 09:47 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for MCroft04   Click Here to Email MCroft04     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Their report makes sense within its scope. But I wonder about the quality of the people who would apply to be an astronaut in an era where we don't have a rocket and spacecraft flying regularly. I'm sure strong candidates will apply, but will they be the best? I understand the scope of this effort, but it seems it should include a statement saying if we want to add astronauts, then we want to attract the best, and therefore we had better develop a clear goal that will lead us back to regular space flight.

MrSpace86
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posted 09-07-2011 10:32 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for MrSpace86   Click Here to Email MrSpace86     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Sometimes you many not necessarily want to hire "the best". There have been astronauts/cosmonauts that seem to not have a well enough grasp of what being an astronaut really means. Sure, they look good on paper and such, but I would rather have someone that is more "average" (maybe not a 4.0 college grad, but average that can speak and interact with everyone) than someone who is "perfect". We need not to put these people on pedestals; we need more average, ordinary people in there to help carry the dream.

Jay Chladek
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posted 09-08-2011 03:57 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The thing to keep in mind though is selection of astronaut candidates tends to change depending on the want or needs of NASA management at the time. As such, I don't believe a Don Petit type would be selected during the early shuttle days because although he had enough brain power to rival a super computer, he might be perceived as a bit quirky. But, for the ISS missions he is the perfect fit in terms of his skill set and the ability to maximize results on a long term space mission (such as an ISS flight) with his outside of the box thinking.

Believe me, there will be plenty of good candidates putting their names in should the need arise. People asked the 2004 class (the Peacocks) why would they join up after Columbia burned up. One of them mentioned to me that during their selection interview, no promises were made that they would even get a shuttle flight since those slots were taken. But each one of them to a man or woman decided they would join since they felt it was the best job on the planet and they wanted to contribute to something good, even in a support capacity. It turns out most of them (if not all) did end up getting flights on the shuttle as there was a small mass exodus of sorts that started around 2007.

This report does bring up a key point of attrition anyway in the astronaut ranks. Needs change as an astronaut matures. With the short term spaceflight programs of shuttle, it meant that they knew that the turn around time for getting selected for a mission was likely going to be a year or two, with a five month training cycle, a mission lasting the better part of two weeks and then a cycle back to the end of the line to wait about another two or three years if they wanted to fly again.

ISS on the otherhand has about a three year training cycle minimum. A lot of that features many months away from family and training in Russia. That does take a lot out of a family as it means a couple years where the astronaut parent didn't see their kid grow up, or missed some other event back home. As such, if an astronaut is going to try and fly on multiple flights, that means years of commitment. I could see many doing two long duration ISS flights, but three? And the reality is that even if they are selected for more than one flight, there is likely going to be a two to three year stretch working in some other capacity before they are considered to be a candidate for a future flight, let alone be selected for one. As such, many likely may bow out after just one flight unless the next one offers even more unique challenges (such as an EVA as opposed to just robot arm operations, or command as opposed to flight engineer).

The one thing that is keeping a few of the more veteran astronauts at NASA these days though is the economy. There are a lack of opportunities in the private sector compared to even three or four years ago. Aerospace companies aren't looking like they used to with cutbacks in the aerospace and defense industries (and the private space industry is still a bit embrionic and flush with retired astronauts who have been there for awhile). Management positions in other industries also aren't as fourthcoming as before either. There are benefits to having a steady paycheck with benefits, good schools for your kids and a good environment for the family to live in. But, if the economy does pick up again while no clear direction for the space program comes fourth, expect that a lot of astronauts that have "been there, done that" to go looking for opportunities elsewhere and somebody will need to already be in the talent pool to take their place, not hired after it happens.

dogcrew5369
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posted 09-08-2011 02:30 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for dogcrew5369   Click Here to Email dogcrew5369     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
As mentioned in the report, which 13 astronauts were deemed unfit to fly long duration missions? First I've heard of this. Anyone know or is it for NASA eyes only.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 09-08-2011 02:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA, following federal law (HIPPA Act of 1993/The Privacy Rule) follows strict medical privacy rules. The information provided by the Astronaut Office to the National Research Council committee did not include names.
To date, there have been 13 former and current astronauts that became medically ineligible AFTER being assigned to a long-duration mission (Mir or ISS) where the astronaut had to be either temporarily or permanently removed from their flight causing a change in ISS crew assignments on 6 occasions.

Michael Cassutt
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posted 09-08-2011 09:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Michael Cassutt   Click Here to Email Michael Cassutt     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Robert's analysis of the report -- and I was a member of the panel -- is quite good, though the headline should actually be more like "NASA May Be Cutting the Astronaut Corps Too Severely". Chief astronaut Whitson has been quite forthright in reducing the size of the corps over the past year -- it's about where it was during Apollo/Skylab, for the same number of "seats" per year.

The difference is, the training for each flight assignment consumes far more time -- an astronaut assigned to an ISS mission today won't fly for 2.5 years, will fly for .5 years, and won't be available for two years after that (one year rehab, one year in a technical/managerial job).

So if you fly 4-5 astronauts per year, you really have 20-25 tied up in ISS at any given moment.

Our conclusion was that, given the other uncertainties -- short-term medical problems, unpredictable training times (whether an astronaut gets fluent in Russian is still quite a variable), attrition for age and other reasons (really hard to predict), the role and usage of NASA astronauts in commercial programs, etc. -- we thought that NASA had cut to the bare bones minimum, and would be better served by having a bit of a margin... say, half a dozen more astronauts than the current projection.

(And with some potential new missions ramping up in 2017, and knowing it really takes three years to take someone from selection to mission... there is justification for a couple of new, smallish selections in 2013-2015.)

Michael Cassutt
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posted 09-08-2011 09:43 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Michael Cassutt   Click Here to Email Michael Cassutt     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
As for the astronauts removed from long-duration flight, NASA has not and did not officially disclose them to the panel.

But at least three cases have been publicized over the years -- Don Thomas, Carlos Noriega and John Herrington were all assigned to ISS missions, and were removed for medical reasons. Herrington was quite open about it when I spoke to him a few years ago.

All times are CT (US)

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