As the space shuttle program winds down, an obvious question faces NASA: How many astronauts will it need in an era of drastically reduced flights? Only three Americans live on the space station at any one time, typically, and those slots come open just twice a year. As for a moon base or Mars mission, well...those are still way in the future.
A new committee of the National Research Council is about to consider what size and shape a 21st Century astronaut corps should have. The study panel on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations, to be co-chaired by former NASA head of human spaceflight Joseph Rothenberg and former astronaut and deputy administrator Fred Gregory, will have its first meeting in January, with a report due in late summer. Among the ex-shuttle astronauts on the panel are Kathy Sullivan, Richard Covey, Bonnie Dunbar, Richard Richards, and Tom Jones. Other members include former NASA Ames center director Henry McDonald, former Air Force Brigadier General and SR-71 pilot Duane Deal, and author (and regular Air & Space contributor) Michael Cassutt, whose books include Who's Who in Space.
The committee also will consider what kinds of training facilities are required, including whether the astronauts really need all those T-38s and other aircraft to maintain flight proficiency.
Whatever the panel concludes, one thing's for sure: At the close of the shuttle era, the public persona of astronauts has changed—probably forever—from the crew-cut square of yore. Just watch Mike Massimino and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger cutting up in this guided tour of the shuttle crawler at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.