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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 1:21 EDT

Navy Restricts Astronaut Nominations

April 28, 2008

For what may be the first time since the inception of the American space program, the Navy is restricting nominations to the astronaut corps. The move comes nearly 50 years after Alan Shepard, a naval aviator, became the first American in space.

The cutback, Navy officials say, comes as the service tries to retain the expertise it needs to fulfill its wartime obligations while experiencing an overall decline in its numbers. A message from Vice Adm. J.C. Harvey Jr. last month stated that applications for Navy nominations to the space program from 10 specialties would not be accepted because of ” critical inventory shortfalls and/or priority global war on terrorism skill set requirements.”

Those groups include SEALs , certain engineering groups and experts in explosive ord nance disposal, as well as permanent military professors and public affairs officers.

George W.S. Abbey, a former NASA official who wielded control over the astronaut office during much of his tenure , which lasted from 1964 to 2002, said, “The Navy is taking a position that adversely affects the country’s ability to have a vital and ongoing space program.”

Lt. Cmdr. William Marks, a Navy spokesman, said he could find no previous restriction on naval applications to the astronaut corps but insisted that the move in no way diminished the service’s commitment to NASA.

“Officially, we are a very enthusiastic supporter of the NASA program,” Marks said. “We always have been and still are.”

But, he said, the Navy has been trying to hold on to its service communities in wartime, and it would be hypocritical to tell those communities that they are desperately needed, “but we can still let you go.”

One applicant who was affected by the decision, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Runkle, executive officer of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit in Panama City Beach, Fla., said he was “a little bitter” about the new rules. Runkle said he joined the Navy in part because he had hoped it would lead to a career in space, even though he knew the chances of acceptance were slim.

“It’s kind of like winning the lottery,” he said. “You live your life as you do, but you buy a ticket every once in a while.”

He applied unsuccessfully twice before . With his expertise in ord nance disposal, however, he cannot apply again under the new rules.

“I’m told I’m not allowed to buy a lottery ticket,” he said, “just on the off chance that I win.”

In the past 15 years, the Navy has nominated as many as 211 and as few as 105 candidates for consideration by NASA, though groups from earlier years numbered as low as 34.

Duane Ross, the manager for astronaut candidate selection and training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the space agency heard about the squeeze earlier this year when word came down through their usual “points of contact” that only five people would be nominated by the Navy.

“The five was kind of a shocker to us,” he said.

The letter from Harvey increased the number of nominees to 50. Still, Ross said, the restrictions were “a little bit disturbing for us.”

The Navy “has always been a good provider of folks” for NASA, he said, and the service has been represented in every astronaut class – they are chosen every couple of years – that the agency has selected.

“Just about every mission, you can pick out some top-notch Navy folks,” Ross said, from Shepard’s historic flight to the most recent mission of the space shuttle, commanded by Dominic L. Gorie, a retired captain .

Although NASA is a civilian agency, service members have long been highly prized as astronaut candidates because of the skills they bring to the program, including discipline and the ability to work in teams and under difficult conditions.

William Shepherd, a retired astronaut and a retired captain in the Navy who served as the first commander aboard the international space station, said Navy experience provided long-term expedition training, with the kind of independent, flexible style of operation that prepared astronauts for long-duration missions aboard the station and in future planned voyages to the m oon and Mars.

“The era that we’re in now in space activities is becoming more like voyaging at sea than flying in the air,” Shepherd said.

While he expressed great admiration for the Navy, he said he was chagrined by the new restrictions.

“In the past, the Navy has taken a longer view,” he said.

Marks noted that other large Navy communities, including aviators, were not prohibited from applying. But Ross of NASA said the agency was not in the market for new pilots at the moment, since the space shuttle program would be wound down by 2010 and the next- generation spacecraft was not likely to be ready before 2015.

In the interim, astronauts will reach the station as passengers aboard Russian spacecraft, he said. Pilots have skills that would be valuable to the program, he said, but “they’re not going to be flying the spaceships” for many years to come.

Representatives of the Air Force, the Army and the Marine Corps said their services were not restricting astronaut applications.

our first in space

Alan Shepard, left, the first American in space in 1961, was a naval aviator. in every class

Dominic L. Gorie, above, a retired captain, led the most recent shuttle mission. The Navy has been represented in every astronaut class NASA has selected. the new policy

To retain expertise in wartime, the Navy is cutting back on nominees to the space program. nasa and the navy