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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Patricia Santy, a former NASA medical officer, says that the problem isn't the initial interview. It's lack of follow-up. "The assumption is that once you've been selected as an astronaut, you're good," she says. "Yet what happens after selection is what changes astronauts most dramatically. They are placed in a narcissistic-enabling environment, treated like gods. You have situations where experienced, senior people in medicine are overruled by people just out of med school just because they happen to be astronauts."

Hoffman doubts that follow-ups are the answer. "People who are clever enough to get past the first screening will be clever enough to pass the follow-ups too," he says.

Nevertheless, astronaut managers continue to gather data on the traits that are best suited for this dangerous yet attractive profession. Behavioral scientist Jack Stuster, author of Bold Endeavours, a 1996 study of historic exploratory missions and a frequent lecturer at the astronaut office, has a continuing study of space station crew members that builds on earlier work with Navy personnel and civilians on Antarctic research teams. "When it came to ranking the traits desirable for fellow crew members, Navy personnel ranked emotional control first, followed by compatibility," says Stuster. "Civilians had them reversed: Compatibility was most important, followed by emotional control. But both groups put technical proficiency third."

Compatibility is important at Johnson. Says Lindsey, "The primary purpose of the astronaut interview is to ask yourself, 'Could I spend 14 days locked up in a Winnebago with this person?' " NASA tackles the compatibility issue by putting astronauts under stress throughout their careers. "One of the most useful programs we have is sending astronauts to the National Outdoor Leadership School," says Lindsey. "You spend around 12 days in places like the Wind River Range or Canyonlands in Utah, learning about self-care and buddy-care, interpersonal stuff, working as a team."

A second phase uses the NASA Extreme Environments Mission Operations (NEEMO) program, in which teams of astronauts and engineers work in the underwater Aquarius lab off Key Largo, Florida. "These are great analogs for shuttle missions," Lindsey says. "Eleven, 12, 14 days where you do scuba dives, which are just like EVA [extra-vehicular activity—spacewalks]. NEEMO missions will also be relevant to lunar missions. In fact, we're doing research now in suits for lunar EVAs, learning about suit weight and center of gravity."

If compatibility is what makes a successful mission in an extreme environment, like the space station or Orion, should NASA be choosing people who have proven themselves in similar situations: submariners, deep-sea divers, oil rig workers? Hoffman, who has a doctorate in astronomy and was one of the spacewalkers who in 1993 repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, doesn't think so. Referring to the 1998 movie Armageddon, in which oil riggers are sent into space to divert an Earth-threatening asteroid, Hoffman says, "With all due respect to Bruce Willis, it's a lot easier to train a Ph.D. to do EVA than it is to train a construction worker to handle the technical requirements of spaceflight."

What about the possibility that the next lunar explorers won't be NASA astronauts? Could oil-rich Russia ignite a second moon race? Officials in Roskosmos, the Russian air and space agency, have spoken about the possibility, but no program has been announced or funded. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has said China might beat America back to the moon—technically possible, given the development of its Long March 5 booster and a lunar lander. But the Chinese government has made no pronouncements about manned missions beyond Earth orbit.

One thing the next moonwalker won't be is a commercial astronaut, like Mike Melvill or Brian Binnie, the pilots of SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize for the first private manned spaceflights. There may well be dozens, possibly hundreds, of people who earn astronaut "wings" as passengers on Virgin Galactic's suborbital flights to an altitude above 62 miles. And by 2019, we may have seen commercial astronauts from Bigelow Space, SpaceX, or Orbital Sciences in Earth orbit. But according to NASA's Ross, they won't be flying to the moon by then. "It will be business as usual," he says.

While the class of 2009 will likely provide at least one member of the next lunar team, others may well be working in Houston already. Experience would be important to a lunar expedition, and NASA has tended to give command of a new vehicle to veterans. For example, long-time astronaut John Young was commander of the first space shuttle flight, in 1981, at age 50. Young had already flown twice on Gemini and twice on Apollo and had walked on the moon. For his Columbia crewmate, Bob Crippen, who was named an astronaut in 1969, the shuttle launch was his first trip to orbit.

Current astronauts Jim "Vegas" Kelly, a two-time shuttle pilot, and three-time flier Pam Melroy, who is working on Orion development, have both expressed a desire to fly Orion missions. Pilots Scott Kelly and his twin brother Mark are also mentioned as committed to long-term careers at NASA. Astronaut Peggy Whitson, veteran of two space station expeditions—one as mission commander—is another astronaut believed to have a long-standing interest in exploration. By the time of the first lunar flights, however, all of these veterans would be in their mid- to late 50s. Not an absolute disqualifier, but certainly a factor. Andy Thomas, for instance, describes himself as "too young for Apollo, too old for Altair."

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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