Last August, at a ceremony at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA introduced its eight newest astronaut candidates. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and center director Ellen Ochoa—both former astronauts—welcomed the new arrivals with rosy predictions for long, varied careers that would include flights to the International Space Station on a new American-made commercial spacecraft beginning in 2017, as well as missions beyond Earth orbit in the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
The latest class is the smallest group NASA has chosen since 1969, and behind the high-fives and backslaps at their introduction lies a stark reality for every astronaut, rookie or veteran: Each year until 2017, there will be only four chances to fly. Instead of the handful of seats available each time when space shuttles were flying three to four missions a year, the quarterly Soyuz launches to the International Space Station have only one seat reserved for a U.S. astronaut. To regain at least some of the capacity lost when NASA retired the space shuttle, the agency is funding development of three competing spacecraft designs: Boeing’s CST-100, SpaceX’s Dragon, and Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser. This year, the agency hopes to select two of the three.
But that’s if the money is there, if the vehicles can be judged safe enough, and if they can be launched on time. Former astronaut Clay Anderson, who left NASA in January 2013 to teach aerospace engineering at Iowa State University, is skeptical. “Every program I was involved with at NASA for 30 years missed the ‘advertised’ date considerably,” he says. Anderson doesn’t believe commercial firms can do any better. “I would have kept the shuttle flying one to two flights per year, while the commercial folks got their acts together and proved they could safely deliver humans to and from orbit,” he says.
As for Orion, an unmanned early version of the vehicle is scheduled to launch aboard a Delta IV rocket this fall. But its future and that of the Space Launch System booster—indeed of all missions beyond Earth orbit, including retrieval of an asteroid—are far from certain.
Starting about four years ago, such uncertainties about the future of the manned space program triggered an astronaut exodus that continues to this day. When Randy Bresnik arrived at JSC in 2004, he says, “there were 135 of us.” As of August 2013, there were 47. Where did everybody go?
Some are still working for NASA as program managers, others took jobs at different federal agencies, and a handful joined academia. Several retired to join the companies building the commercial spacecraft that will carry the ones who stayed. Michael Foale, who flew on six shuttle missions, left for a dream project: to develop an electric airplane. Rick “C.J.” Sturckow, a four-mission veteran, left last spring to join Virgin Galactic as a test pilot for SpaceShipTwo, which will take paying passengers on suborbital flights.
The final straw for some astronauts was the 2010 cancellation of the Constellation program, which was to send astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars. Seven-time shuttle flier Jerry Ross, who retired from NASA in January 2012 after 33 years at the agency, recalls the frustration inside the astronaut office over “the lack of overall direction, within the agency and the nation,” he says. “There’s no big, exciting goal, no Constellation with its suite of new vehicles that were going to take us back to the moon and then on to Mars.”
Chris Ferguson, who in 2011 commanded the last shuttle flight and now works for Boeing, says simply, “My old job doesn’t exist anymore.”
In fact, the job has gotten tougher. Every astronaut now has to learn Russian, face more stringent medical requirements to fly extended missions on the station, develop skills for spacewalking, and become an expert in robotics. “With shuttle crews of five, six, even seven, you could have crew members who were really specialists in either EVA [extravehicular activity—spacewalking] or robotics, and maybe not so much in other areas,” says Bresnik. “Not with station. You’ve got to be more generalist than specialist, expert not just on EVA and robotics but also on science. You’ve got to be able to lift up the hood and fix the engine—or the waste management system.”