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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

New Astronauts Face Limited Opportunities for Spaceflight

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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.”

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

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