How many astronauts does NASA need?

That is the question set before a special blue ribbon panel according to a provocative article appearing in the Orlando Sentinel (and LA Times) this week, which made the not-so-surprising announcement that, "the White House has called for a 10-month study of the appropriate 'role and size' of the 64-member astronaut corps after the final shuttle mission next year."

It was only a matter of time before the bad economy, combined with increasing political pressure to cut government spending, would lead to this question being asked.  After all, with the Space Shuttle's final launches upon us, there are not many opportunities left for NASA astronauts to fly.  According to the article, more than half of the 64 current astronauts are without a scheduled mission.

While more than 30 ISS crew slots have not been assigned for missions through 2020, some are questioning whether less expensive "regular" scientists and engineers, rather than those who have undergone expensive NASA astronaut training, would be able to fill those roles.  In other words, it may be time for a commercial astronaut service.  NASA is even looking for a nonprofit to manage the ISS's National Lab research.

A record 13 astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS on 25 July 2009 (source:

Of particular interest to the thrifty-minded is limiting one of NASA's long-standing astronaut training perks: its T-38 fleet.  These aircraft have been used for decades to prepare astronauts for the G forces of spaceflight.  Astronauts must regularly train in T-38's to maintain their flight skills readiness and physiological acclimation to the rigors of spaceflight.  But maybe that kind of training is no longer needed for the next generation of commercial vehicles.

Funded by NASA under the auspices of The National Academies, the Committee on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations, is comprised of an ad hoc 15-member group of individuals, 6 of whom are former NASA astronauts:

Frederick Gregory
(co-chair), Joseph H. Rothenberg (co-chair), John "Ed" Boyington, Jr., Michael J. Cassutt, Richard O. Covey, Duane W. Deal, Bonnie J. Dunbar, William W. Hoover, Thomas D. Jones, Franklin D. Martin, Henry McDonald, Amy R. Pritchett, Richard N. Richards, Kathryn D. Sullivan, James D. Von Suskil

The committee's project scope is to study and prepare a report on the activities of NASA’s human spaceflight crew office, addressing the following questions:
  1. How should the role and size of the activities which are managed by the human spaceflight crew office change following Space Shuttle retirement and completion of the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS)?
  2. What are the requirements of crew-related ground facilities after the Space Shuttle program ends?
  3. Is the astronaut corps' fleet of training aircraft a cost-effective means of preparing astronauts for the requirements of NASA's human space flight program?  Are there more cost-effective means of meeting these training requirements?
The committee's first meeting will take place from 5-7 January 2011 at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.  Some sessions will be open to the public.  The estimated final report delivery date is 31 August 2011.

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Laksen Sirimanne said...

Brian, I read the Orlando Sentinel article. Never thought it would come to this. What would this mean to all the other aspiring astronauts if there is a pool of highly trained NASA astronauts available for SpaceX an Bigelow to choose from when they are ready to select the first "commercial astronauts"? These astronauts already have ISS, Soyuz, and Shuttle experience. What are your thoughts?

brian said...

Laksen, that is a good point. I think in the near term, there will be competition between ex-astronauts and upcoming commercial astronaut candidates on commercial spaceflight missions. However, many of the astronauts will be nearing retirement, so in the long term, the private astronaut candidates stand to inherit the industry. Plus, the high level of training and skills NASA astronauts possess likely means they will cost more to hire than up-and-comers. I'm willing to bet there will still be jobs for today's aspiring astronaut candidates in the first generation of private spacecraft since we can charge less for our services.

Laksen Sirimanne said...

Brian, good points and I agree with you. I may be a little past my prime, but it is quite inspiring to watch you prepare for your second career. You are young, talented, hard working, and you have a great attitude. Cant wait for you to get your first ride. I have no doubt you would have been thrilled and very proud to have been selected by NASA, but I bet someday you will look back and think that being a part of commercial HSF truly rocketed your career. I will keep rooting for you. Laksen

brian said...

Thanks, Laksen! I'm not counting out NASA either. When they next have openings, I'll definitely apply again. After all, they'll need someone to go to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids!

Laksen Sirimanne said...

Absolutely Brian. You will get there in your lifetime. Laksen