The eleven scientists, engineers, and physicians chosen in 1967 as NASA’s newest astronauts had just arrived in Houston when Deke Slayton, Director of Flight Crew Operations, called them into a meeting and told them the bad news. The program NASA had envisioned, the program that would have had people living in space stations and studying lunar soil in the 1970s, was over. Project Apollo’s budget was declining, and while American astronauts were still two years away from walking on the moon, the men who would fly Apollo missions had already been selected weeks earlier. The choice Slayton offered the new recruits, astronaut Joe Allen later recounted, was stark: They could hang around NASA if they wished, but they would never be “space flyers.” The first chapter of human spaceflight history was ending, and these new astronaut-candidates had arrived too late.
This week America’s latest plans to return astronauts to the moon were similarly consigned to the recycle bin, and NASA’s astronauts are no doubt wondering the same thing their colleagues did 40 years ago: “What about us?”
Between 1975 and space shuttle Columbia’s maiden flight in 1981, no Americans flew in space. Now the shuttle itself is due to retire, without any clear idea yet of what will replace it. Aspects of President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget proposal dealing with space exploration will likely disappoint (though not surprise) those who have watched NASA navigate four decades of hard questioning about what kind of space program the nation needs, and where (if anywhere) it should send its talented astronauts next. To be sure, no President since Dwight Eisenhower has been willing to pull the plug on sending Americans into space, and one suspects that none will anytime soon. NASA’s Constellation program—a broad series of piloted explorations to the Moon or even Mars—will, though, receive no funding; neither will the next generation of launch vehicles NASA hoped would carry future spacecraft to Earth orbit and beyond. The United States will retain a human spaceflight program—it will still send people to the International Space Station—but it will rely upon private industry for help, and there is no explicit plan for where they will head next, or when.
The merits of the President’s decision and the conclusions of the Augustine Commission that recently surveyed future spaceflight options will likely fill blogs for years to come. One thing that is certain, though, is that with the shuttle’s retirement, Americans are facing an extended period of time when relatively few of their citizens will travel into space, making a skilled astronaut workforce even harder to maintain. For NASA, it’s 1975 all over again.
To their credit, none of NASA’s astronaut-candidates of 1967 resigned after Slayton’s announcement, even though he consoled them that they’d “make no enemies” if they did. The boredom and frustration of the years that followed, though, led several of the men, like Philip Chapman and Donald Holmquest, to leave early. For those who stayed behind, working at NASA little resembled the bustle of the 1960s. By the time Americans next flew in space, most veteran astronauts—the ones who had squeezed into the capsules of Project Mercury, scooted around Earth in the two-seater Gemini, or landed on the moon in Apollo—had retired. Instead, the early shuttle crews were made of people who had waited out the great spaceflight bust: journeymen military aviators who had moved to NASA a little too late to find a seat, and the scientist-astronauts Slayton didn’t much want to begin with. Eventually, even Joe Allen donned a helmet, and, after a 15-year wait, flew on the Space Shuttle in 1982.
Space flying has never been a job with much security. Especially lately (and even before Constellation was canceled), the concern among career spacefarers has been that there would be too few flights, a problem that strains morale and keeps the most experienced people from lingering long in Houston. Until recently, though, journalists and space watchers could speculate as to which of NASA’s current astronauts might, by virtue of their youth and stick-to-itiveness, hope to last long enough in the agency to be the first person to bunk on the moon since 1972 (see Michael Cassutt, “Fly Us to the Moon”). With the current economic downturn, one wonders if any will.
Astronauts haven’t been in short supply since 1962; The United States can rely upon an abundance of aviators, scientists, engineers, and science fiction fans willing to sign up for a space mission. But with each astronaut generation that passes, something is lost, and we reach further into our cultural memory for a time when astronauts were ten feet tall, had perfect hair, and never feared that humanity’s grand adventure skyward would ever end.
Matthew Hersch, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of History and Sociology of Science, is this year’s HSS/NASA Fellow in the History of Space Science. He is writing a labor history of American astronauts.