CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - NASA’s mighty astronaut corps has become a shadow of what it once was. And it’s only going to get smaller.
It’s down to 60 from an all-time high of 149 just a decade ago, with more departures coming once Atlantis returns this week from the very last space shuttle voyage.
With no replacement on the horizon for the shuttle, astronauts are bailing fast, even though the International Space Station will need crews for at least another decade.
The captain of Atlantis, Christopher Ferguson, assured The Associated Press from orbit late last week that he’ll be sticking around after this final shuttle journey of them all. At least one of his crew, though, isn’t so sure.
After spending her childhood wanting to be an astronaut _ and achieving that goal in 1996 _ Atlantis astronaut Sandra Magnus now has to figure out what the next chapter holds.
“Now that I’m an astronaut, the whole idea of what I want to do when I grow up comes back full circle,” said Magnus, a scientist and former space station resident who’s flown in space three times.
What a difference a decade makes.
NASA’s fabled astronaut corps numbered 149 in 2000-2001, the biggest group ever. Then shuttles were zooming back and forth building the space station, and a crew was being groomed to fly aboard Columbia to the Hubble Space Telescope. Now the space station is finished, Columbia is gone and the 30-year shuttle program is ending.
These days, chief astronaut Peggy Whitson finds herself on overdrive, working hard to keep up the morale at Houston's Johnson Space Center, astronaut headquarters, while trying to convince outsiders that America still needs a robust astronaut corps in the shuttle-less era.
After all, she’s got a space station to staff.
Two Americans usually are among the six people living on the orbiting lab at any given time, hitching rides up and down on Russian Soyuz capsules. Private U.S. companies hope to take over this taxi job in three to five years, freeing NASA up to explore true outer space. First the goal was the moon, now it’s an asteroid and Mars.
“It’s a very dynamic time, and a lot of folks aren’t real comfortable with all the uncertainties,” Whitson said. “None of us are.”
Ferguson observed from space Friday that former military pilots make up about one-third of the astronaut corps, so he’s not surprised so many commander types are departing.View Entire Story
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