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New Astronauts Face Limited Opportunities for Spaceflight [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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NASA announced on Monday its 2013 class of astronaut candidates, but the current state of the agency’s human spaceflight program makes it hard to get excited about what lies ahead for these remarkable individuals.

To mark the announcement, NASA hosted a Google Hangout on Air with several administrators and former astronauts.


After sifting through more than 6,300 applications—the second-highest amount ever received—NASA chose four men and four women, and will train them “for missions to low Earth orbit, an asteroid and Mars,” according to a NASA press release.

NASA’s human spaceflight program has gone through some recent downsizing. After peaking at about 150 astronauts a decade ago, NASA now keeps between 45 and 55 on the roster, as recommended by the National Research Council.

Since the retirement of the last of the agency’s space shuttles in 2011, NASA has depended on Russian Soyuz space capsules to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station, the only human outpost in the solar system. NASA recently signed a deal to reserve rides to space on Russian spacecraft through 2017 at a cost of $424 million: six seats at $70.7 million apiece.

Furthermore, budget reworks have affected NASA’s spacefaring ambitions. The fiscal year 2014 budget stays relatively steady but moves some resources into unmanned missions: the MAVEN Mars atmospheric mission in 2014, another Mars rover in 2020 and an ambitious mission to snare an asteroid and park it in lunar orbit for study.

To carry astronauts into orbit and beyond, NASA has a crewed vehicle in the works: the Orion capsule, along with the Space Launch System heavy-lift boosters to carry it and cargo into space—but neither are expected to be fully operational until after 2017. The four-seat Orion capsule is designed to “carry the crew to distant planetary bodies,” but with only nine cubic meters of habitable space, it’s hard to envision Orion going to Mars anytime soon. The SLS is a replacement for the shuttle program, with expanded payload options, but its first test flight is set for 2017. It’s also based on the Constellation Project, which was so far behind schedule Pres. Barack Obama scrapped it.

Interestingly enough, NASA now encourages the development of private, commercial spaceflight systems. Companies such SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have made progress in space exploration, and unmanned SpaceX missions have even resupplied the ISS for NASA. Still, these companies hardly have the track record that NASA does when it comes to human spaceflight. On the other side of the world China just successfully sent its fifth manned mission into space, and Russia recently announced a revamped $50-billion space program budget.

During the Google Hangout, prerecorded interviews of the candidates were shown. Naturally, their excitement eclipsed their dwindling opportunities for spaceflight—but some of their words were particularly poignant.

“From my perspective, exploration is the foundation of the human spirit,” said Josh Cassada, a physicist who is part of the 2013 class. “I think if society isn’t exploring, we’re just kind of sustaining.”

Bryan Bumgardner About the Author: Summer intern with Scientific American. Lover of anthropology, French and deep conversation. Follow on Twitter @@BryanBumgardner.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. N a g n o s t i c 12:51 pm 06/19/2013

    Why qualify stating the fact that Obama scrapped Constellation by repeating a demonstrable lie? Constellation would have been scrapped regardless.

    Even taken at face value, how does scrapping a behind-schedule project designed to get us beyond LEO facilitate getting us beyond LEO more quickly, using actual Constellation components plus newly designed ones – and by a target date set conveniently after the 2016 presidential election?

    We aren’t going anywhere past LEO unless the basic political obstacles are dealt with. These obstacles pre-exist Obama, Bush… they pre-exist Apollo. Nothing is being done to address them. The propagation of a fantasy asteroid mission after eliminating the only project designed to get us there is an exercise in political gamesmanship.

    Forward-looking engineers may be nerds, but they’re not so socially-inept as to be blind to such an obvious con.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Scotty111110 10:46 pm 06/19/2013

    Well, to this observer it sure looks like NASA has gone for maximum sizzle and PR value with this group. Not sure if that meant these were the ‘best’, but they sure are the most Politically Correct. Don’t believe me? Take a look:

    Maj. Nicole Mann, USMC. Let’s see….female= Yes, Marine Jet Pilot=Yes (1st since 2004), Native American=Yes, Medically Qualified=No. It appears that NASA was so excited to check so many ‘boxes’ that why should they let a condition that medically disqualifies you for spaceflight (i.e. – Celiac Disease) stand in the way of inviting her to be an astronaut.

    Lt. Cdr. Victor Glover, USN. Check out his Naval Call Sign (given to him by his fellow pilots): IKE (I Know Everything). I guess being a team player isn’t that important when you are an African American military test pilot.

    Lt. Col. Tyler Hague, USAF. A Flight Test Engineer that isn’t actually working in test and has a reputation for being difficult to work with? Maybe there was some truth to the rumor that most of the USAF interviewees were disqualified in the final round and NASA had to pick someone in a blue uniform.

    Maj. Anne McClain, USA. NASA had to delay the announcement of the 2013 astronauts by over a week just so that could call her a ‘recent graduate’. Did the Army not have any TPS graduates apply or was NASA just that excited to get their hands on a military officer that is also a lesbian female?

    Maj. Andrew Morgan, USA. Special Operations always sounds super cool, but it still sounds a little strange to have ‘flight surgeon’ that has never actually worked with pilots in a flying squadron.

    Mr. Josh Cassada, This one was a pretty slick move by NASA. Cassada went through both interview rounds as a Navy officer and only left active duty just a few months ago. Now they get a Navy pilot for their T-38s while having it still look like they selected three civilians. Most expect Cassada to return to active duty when he reports for astronaut training since he only needs a few more years to qualify for a military retirement.

    Ms. Jessica Meir. Another one that sounds really good: Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School. Almost sounds like she is a doctor. I’m just wondering how research on penguins and geese has relevance to spaceflight unless there are plans to send birds to Mars with the first astronauts?

    Ms. Christina Hammock. OSP and Congress have been pushing NASA into the climate research business, so I guess the NOAA connection makes sense. Plus, it was clear that another female was needed because does anyone really believe that it was just an accident that there were equal numbers of males and females selected?

    Link to this

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