Nearly five decades after announcing the seven original Mercury astronauts, NASA is again set to reveal a new class of spaceflyers. But the 2009 astronaut class will be the first in nearly 30 years that will enter training without the prospect of flying on the space shuttle.
What's more, at least some of the new hires will have to make their first spaceflight by hitching a ride on a Soyuz, the Russian-built spacecraft that will be the only way to launch people to the International Space Station once NASA's shuttle fleet retires next year. The agency's space shuttle replacement, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, won't be ready until at least 2015.
By the end of April, NASA hopes to have selected roughly a dozen astronaut candidates to join the Class of 2009 and begin a demanding two-year training course due to conclude some three years before the capsule-based Orion spacecraft and its Ares I rocket are ready for their maiden test flight. The announcement will come a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of NASA's debut of the seven Mercury astronauts, America's first spaceflyers.
On April 9, 1959, NASA unveiled the first-ever American astronauts: Alan Shepherd, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Donald "Deke" Slayton and Gordon Cooper. Today, only two of the seven - Glenn and Carpenter - are living. John Glenn is the only Mercury astronaut to have flown aboard a space shuttle when he launched aboard Discovery in 1998.
New class, no shuttle
NASA's 2009 class is the first round of new spaceflyers since 2004. The members of the 2004 class are expected to log at least one shuttle flight before NASA retires the fleet in 2010.
Johnson Space Center Director Michael Coats, a veteran of three shuttle flights, said he had worried that the pending five-year gap between the space shuttle's retirement and the 2015 debut of its successor would deter astronaut candidates from applying this time around.
But that did not turn out to be the case. NASA received 3,564 applications for the 2009 class and whittled the number under consideration to 40. In the weeks ahead, NASA intends to announce the dozen or so candidates who will join a corps of 85 active astronauts.
Coats said he was pleased with the turnout NASA received since announcing in September 2007 it was accepting applications from pilots, engineers, scientists and teachers.
"So far I think we are continuing to attract the best and the brightest from the talent pool out there, both astronauts and engineers. I don't see a lessening of quality but I worry about it because I know the number of qualified people, especially engineers, is shrinking," Coats said during a March 19 Space Transportation Association breakfast here.
Coats also said he is concerned young people will lose interest in human spaceflight while the United States is without its own astronaut-carrying launch vehicle.
"If we are going to have a gap where we can't put people in space, that bothers me a lot because I think it won't intrigue the young people as much. It will essentially be the same as other countries that pay the Russians to take folks into space," Coats said.
Brushing up on Russian
There are no illusions for the astronaut applicants being interviewed for NASA's new class of spaceflyers. Of the 40 applicants, only 10 or 12 will make the final cut and then likely have a long wait on Earth before reaching space.
"They know they're not going to fly the shuttle, they're probably going to wait many years to fly and when they do they probably will fly on Soyuz to the space station," Coats said.
Once selected, the astronaut candidates will begin about two years of training in August that will include 39 weeks of training for missions to the international space station, said Duane Ross, NASA's manager for astronaut command selection and training at Johnson Space Center.
Normally, new astronauts spend 54 weeks – more than a full year – studying space shuttle systems in one of the most grueling parts of the old training regimen. But with no chance of a shuttle flight, that year will be filled with travel to Russia to train for flights aboard the Soyuz capsules that will ferry U.S. astronauts to the space station until NASA completes the Ares I rocket and Orion crew capsule. The vehicles are part of the Constellation program aimed at returning U.S. astronauts to the Moon by 2020.
Because the U.S. space agency plans to rely heavily on Soyuz for transportation to the space station, astronauts will take more intensive Russian language classes than previous astronaut candidates, Ross said.
"They needed to have some Russian language familiarity before, but now we are going to up the game on Russian language training," Ross said.
There also will be a greater emphasis on geology and geophysics as NASA prepares to return humans to the Moon and Mars, Ross said.
The makeup of most astronaut classes has been about one-third pilots and two-thirds scientists and engineers, and Ross said he does not expect that to change much this year, even though members of this class are unlikely to pilot a spacecraft anytime soon.
NASA needs astronaut candidates who can fly the T-38 Talon supersonic jets that astronauts have been using for training since the 1960s.
"If we had any emphasis right now, certainly you need people on the operational side. We've interviewed doctors and field geologists too, but even though we aren't going to fly the shuttle anymore, we still need pilots," Ross said.
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