|Duane Ross - the man who has been selecting astronauts for more than 30 years. Pictured here at Gila Bend, AZ. Photo courtesy of Duane Ross.
The astronaut class of 2009 may be the last one for a while, due to federal budget cuts and major restructuring of the U.S. space program. The final U.S. Space Shuttle launch is scheduled to be completed by Atlantis, on June 28, 2011. With no new U.S. spacecraft to replace the retiring Shuttle fleet, Americans will be relying on the Russians to ferry our astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
"The current class [of astronauts] was selected to do long-duration missions," said Duane Ross, NASA's Manager for Astronaut Candidate Selection and Training. A typical mission aboard the Space Station could last anywhere from 90 to 180 days. This is quite different than the 10, 11, 12, 14 or 16-day missions done by a Space Shuttle crew. The type of crew members selected has also been affected by this new mission directive. "Now that we're going to the Space Station, there's no crew position that requires piloting skills," said Ross. Not that piloting skills aren't important, he added, but a pilot will not be necessary since the U.S. will not have any spacecraft to fly in the near foreseeable future.
Is there a good chance that NASA will select future astronauts to fly aboard commercially built hardware such as the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule? "That's a possibility," said Ross, who is supportive of commercial space efforts. "I'm behind all of them 100%," he said.
SpaceX, a privately-owned California-based company, appears to be more than willing to take over the transportation of American astronauts. According to the SpaceX website:
After the Space Shuttle retires next year, NASA will be
totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz to carry
astronauts to and from the International Space Station for
a price of over $50 million per seat. The December 8 COTS
Demo 1 flight demonstrated SpaceX is prepared to meet
this need - and at less than half the cost. On December
13th, we submitted our proposal to NASA's Commercial
Crew Development Program (CCDev2) to begin work on
preparing Dragon to carry astronauts.
Right now, there are 60 active NASA astronauts, and NASA is currently not accepting applications for astronaut slots. Once an astronaut is selected, he or she won't actually fly for another 4 or 5 years due to the training schedule. "So you have to project a long way ahead to decide how many astronauts you need," explained Ross. "And it's hard to do because that's budget driven, and you don't know who's going to stay and who's going to leave. There are actually quite a few astronauts who leave each year."
|Duane Ross. Photo courtesy of NASA.