Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Space Gap

Brian Shiro over at Astronaut For Hire has great stories about his first astronaut candidacy, and ongoing goals to meet NASA’s qualifications. My favorite part is the original job posting on the government recruiting site (click to enlarge):

Astronauts Wanted"A daring mind," good one... and of course "Drug-testing designated" – well I should hope so. Here’s the one that cracks me up: "Frequent Travel May Be Required." LOL, you don't say! ;)

However, his recent thought-provoking post about the selection process gave me pause. In the last half-century, only 314 people joined this elite class of flyers. NASA is screening the 20th astronaut group as we speak – the first in 3 decades who will enter training without any prospect of flying on an American space craft.

Constellation hardware (Ares, Orion & Altair) may not be flight-worthy until 2015, so when Space Shuttles become museum pieces in the next few years, the only way to reach the International Space Station will be on Russian Soyuz crafts. Certainly no one distrusts Soyuz – indeed, this program has launched more human space-flight missions than any other platform (and the ISS maintains a docked Soyuz to be used as an escape craft in the event of any emergency.)

However, it’s a mental adjustment for many Americans, who like to think of ourselves as “forefront” kinda people. This "space gap" presents political and psychological shifts. For example, Brian mentions "Two-years of astronaut training will include 54 weeks on Russian Soyuz systems and the Russian language. Usually that time is spent learning Shuttle systems."

If you wanted to be an astronaut 50 years ago, your best bet was being an educated test pilot with a strong heart. The physical and academic qualifications still stand, but nowadays, you're better off with a healthy interest in rocks and a good grasp of русский язык.

You still need "the right stuff" – but it’s definitely "different stuff."

In the article Astronaut Class of 2009 Has No Spaceship on, they quoted Johnson Space Center Director Michael Coats as saying, "…[it] bothers me 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."

He’s worried young people will lose interest in space flight? I so disagree. Wherever you come from, an astronaut is still just about the awesomest thing to be. For kids, certain things are always cool in every generation: space, dinosaurs and pirates. Who knows why?

I think he is under-estimating people of all ages with 'pioneer' minds who appreciate that it’s a chance to continue forward with a more cooperative nature. Russian or American, Chinese or European, the idea is that we celebrate that HUMANITY embarks upon and reaches these amazing achievements together.

Coats had also predicted a downturn in applications once it became known the shuttles would soon be retired – but thousands poured in! No European country has yet built a launch vehicle capable of manned space flight, but their astronaut applications from 22 different countries are forever increasing.

I fully expect the first Mars-walkers to be an international team. Intelligent and courageous individuals of every nationality will always be interested in exploration of every kind.