To understand just how long the space shuttle has been flying, and how many generations of astronauts it has ferried to orbit, consider this: Of the six men assigned to the 134th and next-to-last mission (pictured), four weren’t even born when the first shuttle commander, John Young, joined NASA in 1962.
Young, 80 (photo, left), and his STS-1 pilot Bob Crippen, 73, are now retired, as are almost all the original shuttle astronauts — the Apollo-era holdovers as well as the “Thirty-Five New Guys,” as they called themselves, hired in 1978 to fly the new reusable spaceplane. The younger pilots, engineers, and scientists who replaced those first shuttlenauts had the same fire for space travel, says Crippen. They were “Type-A personalities who want to press forward and do something adventurous.”
They were also a diverse bunch. What’s most surprising about the first group portrait in our gallery is how similar the shuttle’s first and last crews appear: all white men, mostly ex-military pilots. Thirty years ago, that was expected. Now it looks odd. The people who flew on the shuttle — 363 altogether — came from many backgrounds, races, and nationalities. They changed the face of spaceflight.
Air & Space
Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt has been writing about the shuttle since the launch of STS-1 in 1981. He is the editor of the 2002 book Space Shuttle, The First 20 Years: The Astronauts’ Experiences in Their Own Words.
After working as a photojournalist at several newspapers and as a staff photographer at a national sports magazine, Robert Seale now specializes in location portraits for magazines and corporations.
The Commander Families don’t get much space-ier than Mark Kelly’s. His wife, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, chairs a key NASA oversight subcommittee in Congress. His twin brother, Scott, is also an astronaut, and by sheer accident of timing, will be on board the International Space Station when Mark docks Endeavour there in February (on Twitter, Mark posts as ShuttleCDRKelly, Scott as StationCDRKelly).
In preparation for the flight, Mark Kelly took his STS-134 crewmates to Baja, Mexico, in November for a week of camping and team-building. If theirs is indeed the last mission (NASA may add another in 2011), the 46-year-old ex-Navy pilot says his crew plans to mark the end of the shuttle era in their own way. “But,” he says, “I can’t tell you what it is.”
Station Builders In this century, the shuttle’s main job has been constructing the space station, and every astronaut has contributed in one way or another. Left to right: Ken Cockrell commanded the 2001 Atlantis mission that delivered the U.S. Destiny lab. Spacewalker Bob Curbeam helped attach it to the station, and went back five years later to install one of the outpost’s large truss segments. “Suni” Williams has already served one six-month tour on board; she will return in 2012 (in a Russian Soyuz vehicle) as the station’s commander. Leroy Chiao lived on the station following the 2003 Columbia accident, when only two people were on board and resupply flights were so limited that food had to be rationed.
The Women It began with six pioneers — all hyper-achieving Ph.D.’s or M.D.’s — who in 1978 broke into what had been an exclusively male NASA club. Sally Ride (not pictured) was the first of the six to reach space. Anna Fisher (second from left), a chemist and physician, was fourth — on mission STS-51A in 1984. The first mother in space, she took a six-year leave of absence in the 1990s to raise her family. Fisher, now 61, and Shannon Lucid (who lived on the Mir space station in 1996) are the last of the original female astronauts still at NASA.
A total of 45 American women have flown on the shuttle. Just two — Pam Melroy and Eileen Collins (third and fourth from left) — became shuttle commanders, having both been Air Force pilots before turning to spaceflight. Mae Jemison (far right) followed a different path to orbit — a medical doctor and Peace Corps worker, she was inspired by Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura to apply to the astronaut corps. When Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, a 35-year-old former teacher (second from right), flew last April, she was the shuttle’s last rookie astronaut. To show how far we’ve come since the days of the Mercury Seven: The shuttle era ends with a woman — 50-year-old former biochemist Peggy Whitson (far left) — as NASA’s Chief Astronaut.
Flight 134 What makes a good space shuttle crew? STS-134 commander Mark Kelly (far right) says you start with the necessary mix of skills — a pilot, a robot arm operator, experienced spacewalkers. But beyond that, “you want a team that you think will work together well.” Here’s the crew that Kelly and his bosses in the astronaut office picked for the last regularly scheduled shuttle mission: Pilot Greg “Box” Johnson (next to Kelly) will be making his second flight. Kelly says the former F-15 pilot is a “good team builder, always a very positive attitude.” Continuing down the line: Two-time space station resident Mike Fincke has spent a year on the ISS, but this will be his first shuttle ride (his other launches were on the Russian Soyuz). Italian Roberto Vittori has also visited the station twice, and he too will be launching on the shuttle for the first time. The European Space Agency astronaut has known Kelly since test piloting days. Drew Feustel will take his first trip to the station — his only previous shuttle mission was to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. And Greg Chamitoff will be flying on the shuttle for the second time. He lived on the space station for six months in 2008.
High-Timers Most of the human spaceflight records not claimed by Russians (22 of whom have spent upwards of a year in orbit) are held by shuttle astronauts. With two long-duration stays on the space station — the second, in 2007, as its first female commander — Peggy Whitson is the U.S. record holder for total time spent in space: 377 days. Franklin Chang-Diaz (middle) made his first shuttle flight in January 1986, just weeks before the Challenger accident. Having been back six more times, he is one of only two people in the world to take seven trips to orbit (Jerry Ross is the other). Michael Lopez-Alegria holds the record for most U.S. spacewalks: 10. He also made the longest single flight by an American — a 215-day stay on the station in 2006-2007.
Mr. Shuttle Bob Crippen hadn’t planned to fly for NASA. A Navy pilot, he signed up in 1966 for a military space station program that was later cancelled. So he transferred to NASA two months after the first moon landing, and waited. Assigned to the first space shuttle flight in 1981 with Apollo veteran John Young, Crippen became more closely associated with the shuttle than any other astronaut. He flew on four of its first 13 flights, three as commander. He went on to serve as director of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, headquarters for shuttle operations, where, he says, “you see the same level of pride from the launch director down to the guy who pushes the broom cleaning up the place.”
Crippen remains an unwavering shuttle lover. Will we regret sidelining the vehicle without a replacement in hand, just as we now kick ourselves for retiring the Saturn V moon rocket? “I think we will have that conversation,” he says.