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

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Constellation's other components include the Ares I and Ares V rockets, the Earth Departure Stage, and the Altair lunar lander. Along with Ares I, which is based on the shuttle's solid rocket booster, the Orion crew module is the most developed of the elements (see "Orion's Brain," Sept. 2007). Orion is shaped like the Apollo command module but is 50 percent larger and can carry six people to low Earth orbit, or four to lunar orbit.

"No one at NASA has designed a new manned vehicle in over 30 years," says Ivins, who heads the astronaut office's Constellation branch. "A whole generation has never had that experience." But the new generation of astronauts will be part of the design process, just as the Mercury astronauts were. Randy Bresnik, a Marine test pilot in the 2004 astronaut group, currently is helping shape Orion's design. "The spacecraft should take the workload off the crew for mundane tasks," he says. "In the shuttle, you spend a lot of time training to go to the right page in a thick flight data file. Orion operators should only do the things a computer can't do." Still, Bresnik says, there remains a role for "pink squishy bodies" in space. "We know where to look when there's a problem."

The 2009s will be certified as full-fledged astronauts in 2011. By then, they will already be working on technical assignments—as capsule communicators, or capcoms, or as crew support astronauts for station missions, payloads, hardware, spacewalks, and robotics. And they will be obsessing over this question: Will I get to go to the moon?

One problem confronting them will be a lack of flight opportunities. Through the shuttle era, new astronauts could expect to make three to five flights in an active career that averaged a dozen years. "In some years, we had 50 different astronauts in space," says former shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman. "With Orion and ISS, that number will be more like a dozen. The new candidates will be looking at one or two flights at most in their entire career." It's a model that recalls the Apollo era.

But this generation will differ from its predecessors in one key area. According to Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon, the Apollo astronauts did little reflecting on or sharing of their experiences; they were too concerned with timelines, and they often were simply uninterested in doing so by temperament. After all, they were pilots, not poets or geologists. "You had to do the 'exploring' in order to get to do the flying," Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad told Chaikin.

From the first Mercury missions onward, NASA was open about its activities, but was often clueless about the benefits of better communication with the public. Stafford wanted to carry a color-TV camera on Apollo 10 (earlier Apollo missions had used black-and-white cameras), but he found NASA tremendously resistant. Even shuttle astronauts were not universally eager to communicate the wonders of exploration, or to explore at all. Former astronaut Tom Jones recalls that when he would give informal seminars on new developments in astronomy, or futuristic missions like manned asteroid flybys or comet landings, a small but notable element within the pilot ranks would react with bafflement or indifference. "Who cares about a blasted hunk of rock in space?" one asked.

The 2009s, on the other hand, will be cut out for show-and-tell. Says Chaikin, "If the Baby Boomers are the 'Me Generation,' those who are in their 20s and 30s now are the 'Look-at-Me Generation.' They are more comfortable being on stage and sharing their experiences with blogs and YouTube. The Orion-Altair astronauts will face the same pressures of timeline and checklists the Apollo men did, but their missions will be longer. They will have time to reflect, then relate their experiences to those of us on Earth. They understand that they represent those of us who can't go." Some of the recent space station crews understand that; several station astronauts have written blogs while in orbit.

No matter how media-savvy the new astronauts are, they'll find that the Constellation program presents challenges and opportunities that dwarf Apollo in complexity and ambition. For one thing, the Altair lander is only one of three basic vehicles on the drawing board; there's also an outpost and a pressurized logistics module. Based on the Altair design, the outpost will provide living quarters for four astronauts during lunar missions lasting 14, 28, or even 180 days.

The logistics module will provide needed supplies and other equipment, such as a pressurized lunar rover or a crane to transfer cargo. The design is immensely complicated by the twin goals of sustainability and operability. "All equipment has to be able to work in three modes: with an astronaut in control, remotely from mission control, and independently," says Chris Culbert of the lunar surface systems office. Mobility is key. "It's not just moving from point A to point B, it's being able to do something once you get there," he says.

The NASA that the new candidates will be joining is a more jittery organization than the one that greeted earlier classes. In the wake of the 2007 scandal in which shuttle astronaut Lisa Nowak was charged with assaulting a rival for the affections of another astronaut, the 2009s will face greater psychological testing than their predecessors, though, Duane Ross points out, "We already spend more time in the interview week on that subject than on any other."

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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