Astronauts Waiting for a Ride

Now that the space shuttle’s gone, what do astronauts do?

NASA’s 2013 astronaut candidates, nicknamed the “Eight Balls,” pose in front of a mockup of the Orion capsule at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, last August. From left: Tyler Hague, Andrew Morgan, Jessica Meir, Christina Hammock, Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, Anne McClain, and Victor Glover. (NASA / Robert Markowitz)
Air & Space Magazine

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For the members of the class of 2013, there’s one final obstacle to a mission assignment: “There’s the class of 2009 ahead of them,” says Behnken. To make sure the newbies got the message, the nine men and women of that class, who bear the name “Chumps,” christened the latest group the “8 Balls,” after the game of pool that requires players to take their turn.

In their group are two test pilots (Air Force and Navy), an Army helicopter pilot, a Marine flight test engineer, an Army flight surgeon, and three scientists (an oceanographer, a physicist, and an oceanographer-physician).

Those eight will likely wait five or seven years for a mission—and they were warned. “I actually spoke to most of the new folks during the first and second rounds of interviews,” Behnken says. Those he missed heard about the challenges of the job from veterans like Bresnik. And until astronauts actually get to fly in space, Behnken the boss says, “everyone will have plenty of meaningful work to do.”

For the 8 Balls, that means going through the standard astronaut candidate training and evaluation course, which includes survival training in Maine, familiarization with NASA’s fleet of T-38 trainer aircraft, and an introduction to the station’s systems, EVA, robotics, and Russian language. This phase of their NASA careers will last from one and a half to two years.

The Calling
Despite the upheavals in the agency’s transition from shuttle to commercial spaceships and the well-reported scene of astronauts leaving in droves, the space agency got more than 6,300 applicants for the eight positions just filled, the most for any class since 1978. “We were pleasantly surprised,” says Behnken. “I think putting the application online made it less daunting.” But there has to be something besides convenience that keeps enticing people to the job that sends them to space. Money isn’t the appeal. Astronauts are paid civil service salaries on scales that range from $59,493 to $130,257 a year. It isn’t fame. The station offers few opportunities for historic firsts, and to the public, astronauts may be talented and appreciated, but they’re anonymous. And says Bresnik, no astronaut today is likely to reach the ultimate goal during his career: “humans on Mars.”

Yet even some of the recently departed say if they had it to do all over again, they would readily apply to be astronauts. “One hundred percent,” says Gregory “Box” Johnson, now with Florida’s Center for Advancement of Science in Space, which works to get science experiments to the station. Says Jerry Ross, “Yes I would. With all its drawbacks and uncertainty, human spaceflight is still exploring a frontier. It’s still challenging.” Even if the wait now to get to the frontier has become longer.

About Michael Cassutt

Michael Cassutt has co-authored DEKE!, the autobiography of astronaut Deke Slayton, as well as several novels and television scripts.

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