September 8, 2011

NASA Must Retain More Astronauts: Report


NASA must maintain a strong, highly trained astronaut corps to reliably meet the crew requirements of the International Space Station (ISS) and to account for unexpected attrition or demands of other missions, said the National Research Council (NRC) in a report released on Wednesday.

The report, entitled "Preparing for the High Frontier - the Role and Training of NASA Astronauts in the Post-Space Shuttle Era”, urged the U.S. space agency to retain more astronauts on staff than currently planned, despite the fact that human space flight has been temporarily stalled with the ending of the space shuttle program.

“With the retirement of the shuttle program and the uncertainty during the transition to a fully operational ISS, it's even more important that the talent level, diversity, and capabilities of the astronaut office be sustained," said Joe Rothenberg, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and a former senior NASA official now with the SSC (previously known as the Swedish Space Corp).

"Making sure NASA maintains adequate training facilities is also essential to ensure a robust astronaut corps,” he said.

NASA's astronaut corps peaked in 2000 at 149, but is now down to just 60.  The space agency projects it will need a minimum 55 to 60 astronauts over the next five years, but the authors of the NRC report caution that this may not be adequate.

Last year, NASA asked the NRC to investigate the role and size of the astronaut corps during this transition time.  The study, which was conducted by a committee of 13 experts, including five former astronauts, concluded that NASA's current projected target size for the astronaut corps "poses a risk to the U.S. investment in human spaceflight capabilities.”

The current plan does not offer enough flexibility to accommodate sudden departures or other matters, the report said.

"Reducing the size too much can create shortages of key skills.”

In this time of transition and uncertainty, "it's even more important that the talent level, diversity and capabilities of the astronaut office be sustained," said Rothenberg.

"Making sure NASA maintains adequate training facilities is also essential to ensure a robust astronaut corps."

Because of the different medical requirements involved in spending six months on a space station, versus a week or two on a space shuttle, NASA must retain additional astronauts in case crew replacements are needed due to illness or disability, the 102-page report noted.

In addition to those assigned to ISS missions, astronauts will be needed in Houston to help maintain operation of the space station, handle any emergencies, assist in future spacecraft development and interact with the public, the NRC said.

NASA´s plan to periodically select a small group of new astronauts is a good approach, the committee said.

Until private companies begin launching crews – estimated to occur in three to five years – NASA astronauts will continue to rely upon Russian Soyuz capsules launched from Kazakhstan for transport to the ISS.

The Soyuz rockets are currently grounded, with all crew flights to the space station suspended after last month's failed launch of space station cargo.  The supply vessel crashed in Russia shortly after takeoff.

NASA said the space station, which has been continuously inhabited for nearly 11 years, would need to be temporarily abandoned if a new crew cannot be launched before the last of the six residents return to Earth in mid-November.

The full NRC report can be viewed at