Fly Us to the Moon

The next lunar explorers will soon report to Houston. Are some already there?

One of these shuttle astronauts could get the call for a moon mission. Top to bottom, left to right: Terry Virts, mission specialists Robert Behnken, Karen Nyberg, pilots Jim “Vegas” Kelly, Mark Kelly, Pam Melroy, Randy Bresnik, and mission specialist Megan McArthur. (NASA)
Air & Space Magazine

On a warm fall day in September 1962, a young U.S. Air Force captain named Tom Stafford sat on the stage of a University of Houston auditorium with eight other men. They had just been named the second group of NASA astronauts. As reporters peppered them with questions about hometowns and families, Stafford looked to his right and left and thought, One of us is going to be the first to walk on the moon.

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He was right: One of the nine was Neil Armstrong. Like Stafford, Armstrong was a member of the pioneering first generation of NASA astronauts—73 in all, selected between May 1959 and August 1969. Most were experimental test pilots. The rest were either military pilots or professional scientists who had to qualify by flying jet aircraft. They could not be taller than five foot eleven, and their eyesight had to be 20/20 without correction. The first groups had to endure a week of hellish medical tests. All were white males.

In 1978, the second generation emerged: the first group of astronauts selected to fly on the space shuttle. For them, the medical requirements were eased considerably, because the launch and entry stresses of the shuttle were more benign. The new astronauts could be as tall as six foot four and, for some, glasses or contact lenses were allowed. Fifteen of the "Thirty-Five New Guys" were test pilots, but 20 were "mission specialists"—engineers and scientists, some of whom had no piloting skills at all. None of the mission specialists had to qualify as a pilot; they only had to ride in the back of the T-38 Talon jet trainers to show that they could work effectively as members of flight crews. Six of the TFNGs were women, four were minorities. Over the next 26 years, through 2004, more groups were trained, bringing the number of shuttle astronauts to 238.

The astronauts to be picked in 2009—NASA's 20th group—will be the first of a third generation, and theirs will be a particularly daunting mission: Return America to the moon on an entirely new spacecraft. "We will no longer be flying on the shuttle," says Steve Lindsey, the four-time space flier who since October 2006 has headed the astronaut office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "By 2011, when the new candidates complete their initial training, we won't even have the [shuttle] simulators." The 2009s will also face more restrictive physical admission criteria than the shuttle generation. Because they are being selected initially for International Space Station missions, the new candidates will have to fit in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which has a height restriction of six foot three. "It's not just a matter of height, but all kinds of anthropometrics: leg length, sitting height," says Lindsey. So, with NASA again planning long trips in small capsules, prospective astronauts will have to be just a bit shorter than their shuttle brethren.

As usual, NASA won't have any problem filling the astronaut ranks. In the latest call for applications, 3,535 people are vying to gain a seat in the astronaut class of 2009. A panel headed by Duane Ross, manager of astronaut selection for the past 42 years, will conduct several reviews of the pool, first eliminating those who don't meet the qualifications, then winnowing them further, looking for the right balance of achievement and versatility. About 120 applicants will be identified, and 20 at a time will be invited to Houston for a week of medical tests and interviews beginning this month. From that group, about 40 will be called back to NASA next February and March for more extensive screening. In late April, Lindsey or flight crew operations director Brent Jett will call those selected from that round, inviting them to join the astronaut team.

"We're looking at a group from 10 to 15," says Ross. "The final number will depend on how big the astronaut office is at the time we make the decision." There are now 90 active-status astronauts, but by the time the 2009s are eligible for flight assignment, the number is expected to shrink to 60. Once the last shuttle crews are named, next May or June, attrition may increase, since those remaining have to compete for slots on the three-seat Soyuz flying to the space station.

Since NASA began selecting women as astronauts 30 years ago, it has never chosen fewer than two in each astronaut group. Based on past experience, expect a third of the 2009s to be female. There will be a similar number of minority candidates. And while eight to 12 of the new astronauts will be scientists, engineers, or current NASA employees (with overlap among the categories), three or four will come from the traditional test pilot community. According to Lindsey, a former test pilot, "They are pilots, they've been in operational squadrons, some have been in combat. They have been through test pilot school and have worked on flight test programs. They come to the astronaut office with the ideal background."

But NASA wants more. "It's vital for us to have a variety of skill sets and points of view in the astronaut office," says Lindsey. "When you put test pilots together with scientists, both sides learn. Pilots need to learn science, scientists need to learn operational skills."

The 2009s will also differ from the shuttle-era groups in that they'll drop the distinctions between flight duties. "We've eliminated the caste system," says veteran shuttle astronaut Marsha Ivins. Instead of having titles like "pilot" or "mission specialist," the new astronauts will all be simply "operators." There won't be any teachers-in-space, either; NASA dropped the "educator mission specialist" classification last year. "Educators will be welcome," says Ross, "but they will be competing, the same as everyone."

Beyond Soyuz flights to the space station, the new astronauts can look forward to the Constellation program and the Orion spacecraft. "Constellation is the mission to get us back to the moon," says Mark Geyer, Orion project manager.  "Orion is the element that allows us to continue operating in low Earth orbit, flying crews and supplies to the International Space Station beginning in 2015, then allowing us to go onto the moon."

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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