That's one interesting question that a few former space shuttle astronauts and other experts were grappling with one day in early March at the National Research Council's Keck building in downtown Washington, D.C. Around a large conference table sat NASA veterans Fred Gregory, history's first black spacecraft commander, and Dick Covey, the pilot on the first shuttle mission after the Challenger disaster, along with former astronauts Dick Richards, Bonnie Dunbar, and Tom Jones, and several other subject experts. Called the Committee on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations, the dozen-plus members of the group are holding three meetings this winter and spring in Texas, Washington, and Massachusetts to study issues related to the shuttle's retirement, such as the future activities of NASA's Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD), the requirements of crew-related ground facilities, and the size, nature, and mix of the astronaut corps' fleet of training aircraft and whether that fleet will meet future training needs. The group had former space shuttle astronaut Ken Bowersox on a conference call from where he works at Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, in Hawthorne, California.
Bowersox is SpaceX's vice-president of astronaut safety and mission assurance, and is an advocate for the new commercial space opportunities being funded by NASA's Commercial Crew Development program. "Sox," as his old NASA colleagues call him (Covey was his commander on STS-61), said that the company's Dragon spacecraft may operate in some modes as a "rental car," where SpaceX would lease the vehicle to NASA, whose astronauts would then be in charge of the vehicle for trips to the International Space Station. The other possibility is that Dragon would operate in "taxi" mode, with a SpaceX astronaut taking NASA or international astronauts to and from the station.
But a larger discussion also looms about the extent to which a driver is necessary, as automation has become so advanced for launch, rendezvous, docking, reentry, and landing, that a pilot-astronaut on board actually takes up a seat that might be filled by some other qualified person, such as a scientist. (Attention Apollo astronauts and shuttle commanders: Please send no hate mail—we're just the messenger.)
It's hard to imagine former space shuttle pilots agreeing to become basically passengers. But unmanned Russian Progress vehicles, European Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs), and Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicles (HTVs) dock unmanned at the ISS pretty frequently, the HTVs with the help of the station's robotic arm.
For his part, Bowersox, who has flown four times as either a shuttle commander or pilot, and a fifth time as a shuttle passenger to the ISS, is open-minded to what the future may bring. A former U.S. Navy fighter pilot and test pilot, he admitted that the rental car mode is a bit more attractive to him than the taxi mode. But he did point out that many highly experienced cosmonauts, some of whom have commanded Soyuz capsules, have not come from Russia's test pilot/fighter pilot culture, as all shuttle pilots and commanders have. Sergei Krikalev, with more time in space than any human being, was not even a jet pilot, but learned to fly in light aircraft. Alexander Kaleri, just returned from the ISS, has very limited aviation experience, according to Bowersox. Kaleri was the commander of Soyuz TMA-01M, which returned to Earth on March 16. And then there was Nikolai Budarin, another Soyuz commander. "Budarin was an anti-aircraft officer," said Bowersox. "He was trained to shoot down pilots."
Automated spaceflight will take another step forward this summer with the next launch of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which, on its second trip to orbit, will rendezvous with the International Space Station. Bowersox told the group that SpaceX will halt the approach about 2.5 kilometers, or a couple miles, from the ISS. The third Dragon demo flight, planned before the end of 2011, will fly unmanned all the way to the station, where ISS astronauts will grapple the spacecraft with the station's robotic arm and berth it to the station. If all goes well, Dragon will bring cargo to the ISS on 12 more unmanned flights before SpaceX would be ready for human spaceflight.