NASA: 50 Years of Exploration
By Patty REINERT and J.R. WILSON
Sitting on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, Scott Altman, a Navy test pilot turned astronaut, focused on the countdown:
“At T minus 6 seconds, the engines come on and you are starting to feel this shaking. At T minus zero, boom, everything is rocking and shaking and you’re saying, ‘Wow! We are not in a simulator any more!’ There is just this exhilarating power and acceleration,” he recalled later about his first launch in 1998.
“When I looked out the window, I saw the curvature of the Earth and the coastline from space. It was just beautiful. You just take a minute to appreciate the near miracle it is that humans can fly in space. You take in the way the world looks as it passes beneath you,” he said. “It is a funny feeling to be there, looking back at your home and thinking, ‘Everybody I know is down there and I am up here.’ I had to force myself to look back inside and go back to work.”
Since NASA introduced the original Mercury Seven astronauts to the world in April 1959, the exclusive club of American space fliers has grown to more than 300, with 90 astronauts on the active flight list and another dozen or so scheduled to be selected in 2009.
In the past half-century, astronauts have landed on the moon and explored its surface, flown more than a hundred missions aboard the space shuttle, and lived aboard the International Space Station. They have performed numerous spacewalks to launch satellites, install station hardware and repair the Hubble Space Telescope, which continues to send home spectacular images of the universe and has rewritten astronomy textbooks.
This group of pioneers is pressing ahead. In the next decade, the shuttle fleet will be retired and new spacecraft and launch systems will be built with the goal of returning explorers to the moon by 2020 and, eventually, sending them on to Mars.
“We’ve come a long way and I’m not sure people appreciate or understand it at all. They don’t pay much attention any more, unless we have an accident,” said Michael Coats, a shuttle veteran who directs Johnson Space Center in Houston, home of the astronaut corps and Mission Control Center. “But we’ve really learned how to work in space and I think the next 50 years will be even more mind-boggling.”
The Mercury Seven were chosen from a group of elite military test pilots who had proven themselves flying a wide variety of aircraft. They risked their lives to push the envelope of science and technology. NASA still prizes military flight experience, but has brought aboard civilian scientists since the Apollo lunar program. A space shuttle “mission specialist” category was created in 1978, opening the way to space for a far larger segment of the population, and the shuttle also carries “payload specialists,” one-time fliers who come aboard to conduct research in their areas of expertise.
The Mercury Seven were relatively young (39 or under). Most astronauts today are in their mid-30s, but age restrictions have been abandoned. Deke Slayton flew as an astronaut for the first time at age 51 after being grounded during Mercury by an irregular heartbeat. His teammate, John Glenn, became the oldest human in space at age 77, flying aboard the space shuttle as a payload specialist conducting age-related research in 1998, more than 36 years after becoming the first American to orbit Earth.
The first astronauts Slayton, Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Wally Schirra and Alan Shepard also had to be no taller than 5’11” in order to fit into the tiny Mercury capsules. Today’s space shuttle astronauts would tower over them, with height restrictions raised to 6’4” and pilots having minimum height requirements in order to reach all of the spacecraft’s cockpit controls.
The selection of astronauts has changed considerably over the past five decades. In the Mercury era, all were male and white. But today, in an effort to create an astronaut corps that looks more like America, NASA actively recruits women and minority pilots and scientists.
Many were inspired to pursue a career in space by pioneers like Jerrie Cobb, who passed the test for the Mercury Program in 1959 in hopes of becoming NASA’s first woman astronaut. She was not allowed to apply for the astronaut corps, however, because she lacked military jet pilot experience, a NASA requirement that eliminated all women of her time. African-Americans Ed Dwight, who was recommended for the astronaut training program by President Kennedy, and Robert Lawrence, an Air Force astronaut designee who was killed in an aircraft training exercise in 1967, also paved the way.
In 1978, NASA began tapping women and African-Americans as astronaut candidates. The first woman member of the 1978 class to fly was physicist Sally Ride (STS-7, 1983), who in 1987 headed a panel that provided recommendations for NASA’s future missions. Her class also included electrical engineer Judith Resnik, who flew on Discovery’s maiden flight in 1984 and later on the ill-fated 1986 Challenger mission, and biochemist Shannon Lucid, who first flew in space in 1985 and later spent 179 days on the Russian Mir space station. Also in that astronaut class were African-Americans Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., Ron McNair and Fred Gregory. Bluford, an Air Force pilot, flew in 1983 on Challenger during the shuttle’s first night launch and landing. A veteran of four space missions, Bluford was followed in 1984 by physicist McNair who later died in the Challenger accident, and Air Force pilot Gregory, the first African-American shuttle commander (STS-33, 1989), who served from 2002 to 2005 as NASA’s deputy administrator. In 2005, he was briefly NASA’s acting administrator.
America’s first Asian-American in space was Air Force aerospace engineer Ellison Onizuka, who flew on the shuttle’s first Department of Defense mission in 1985 and died in the Challenger accident. The first Hispanic space explorer was physicist Franklin Chang-Diaz (first flight STS 61-C in 1986), a native of Costa Rica, who flew on seven shuttle missions. The first woman Hispanic astronaut, electrical engineer Ellen Ochoa (first flight STS-56, 1993), is currently deputy director of the Johnson Space Center. A member of NASA’s 2004 class of astronauts, electrical engineer Jose Hernandez was one of four children in a migrant farming family from Mexico. Hernandez spent much of his youth picking strawberries and cucumbers on California farms. He was inspired to “want to fly in space” after hearing on the radio about Franklin Chang-Diaz’s selection to the astronaut corps.
A “spaceflight participant” program meant to allow non-astronauts to fly in space was discontinued after the Challenger accident. Teacher Christa McAuliffe was among seven astronauts killed when the shuttle exploded shortly after launch. Barbara Morgan, an elementary school teacher who was McAuliffe’s colleague in the spaceflight participant program, patiently waited 21 years for her flight opportunity. It came on the STS-118 mission (Aug. 2007) a flight where she was a full-fledged mission specialist. Other teachers who have subsequently joined the astronaut corps are now fully-qualified mission specialists who perform all the duties their fellow crew members perform, in addition to using their education backgrounds to help inspire America’s next generation of explorers.
Duane Ross, a 40-year NASA veteran who manages astronaut candidate selection and training at JSC, said advanced degrees and top physical fitness continue to give applicants an edge in the competitive selection process, but the minimum qualifications for astronauts today are U.S. citizenship, good health, a bachelor’s degree in math, science or engineering, and three years of work experience.
“After that, we’re looking for a good mix of things,” he said, “academics, work experience, outside activities that help us to see what kind of person they are, whether they can adapt to different situations, whether they give something back to the community, are nice people, can work as a member of a team and get along with people.”
Ross said he tries to give astronaut candidates a true picture of what the job would be like: The stress is high, the training intense, the hours long, with pay starting around $90,000 a year for most astronauts. Astronauts training for a space station mission must expect plenty of travel to Russia, and astronauts and their families must be willing to be separated for up to six months at a time as stays aboard the station grow longer and NASA aims for the moon and Mars.
And while the early astronauts were instant celebrities and heroes who rode in tickertape parades down Wall Street, most modern-day astronauts toil, in space or on the ground, with much less publicity than their forebearers. Still, each time NASA recruits a new astronaut class, 2,500 to 3,000 people apply, Ross said. Only 100 or so make the first cut and are invited to JSC for a week of intensive medical and psychological testing, orientation and interviews.
“It can be a little overwhelming,” Ross said of the interview process before the 12-member astronaut selection board. “We try to make it as comfortable and laid back as we can, but some people bring quite a bit of anxiety into the room with them. I always tell them it takes 12 of us to come up with questions for one of them. But there is really only one standard question we ask: We say, ‘Take us back to your high school days, what you did in high school and then bring us up to speed.’”
In the end, only about a dozen people will be offered the job.
“There is no stigma in not getting picked,” said Ross. “We encourage folks to apply again next time and to keep trying. The fact that they made it in the door is a loud message they are doing something right. If they aren’t eliminated by the medical tests, it’s usually just a matter of numbers.”
Janet Kavandi, a chemist and shuttle veteran who serves as deputy chief of the astronaut office at JSC, was selected on her first try. She had been stunned by the qualifications of the other candidates and convinced her interview invitation had been a mistake.
“When the call came, they said, ‘Are you still interested in flying in space?’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘You’re kidding,’ and they said, ‘We are not kidding.’”
Once selected, astronauts report to Houston for up to two years of classroom work and intensive basic training, including flying in the T-38, land and water survival training and SCUBA diving certification to practice spacewalks in the neutral buoyancy pool at JSC. They also train in mockups and simulators of the space shuttle and station. Once they are assigned to a flight, the astronauts train with their team for that specific mission for another 12 to 18 months.
“There’s a lot of new information and a whole new language. We call it drinking from a fire hose,” said Joseph Acaba, a former Florida math and science teacher who is awaiting assignment to his first flight. “You have to take all that in, understand it, execute procedures, perform under stressful situations, learn how to be a back-seater in a high-performance jet where things happen very quickly… As I tell students, ‘When you work hard for something you love to do, it doesn’t seem like work.’”
Altman, who has flown three shuttle missions and is training for a 2008 trip to repair Hubble, said he was most impressed by the success-oriented nature of the training program.
“It was not competitive,” he said. “They would say, ‘We’re going to cover this and evaluate you and if you need more work we’ll see that you get it.’
“There is just so much information to master and recall, to organize in your own mind, to understand what’s happening, what’s the right action to follow,” he said. “I’ve been doing this 12 years and I’m still learning things I would swear I never heard before.”
Coats, a member of the first shuttle class and a three-time flier, said that over the years, as missions have become more complex, training has grown “much more detailed, well thought-out and demanding than when I went through it.
“We also now have astronauts as instructors, which began about seven years ago, and they can be pretty hard on each other,” he said.
There also have been big changes in the medical arena.
“When I got here in 1977, the relationships between the Apollo astronauts and flight surgeons were, to put it politely, very strained,” Coats said. “In the extreme conservatism of the old days, a sneeze at the wrong time might get you grounded, so the astronauts tried to avoid the flight surgeons when they could. But that began changing and a lot of the medical issues they would not have even bothered to work 30 years ago – they just grounded you – they now work extensively and do everything they can to keep you on flight status. Today, I think the astronauts believe the flight surgeons are there to help them and that’s a huge change.”
Dr. Mike Duncan, chief of the space medicine division at JSC, said flight surgeons today have the benefit of much more data about the toll spaceflight takes on the human body. They also have worked hard to build trust with their astronaut patients, even going through training exercises with them, flying in the T-38s, and diving with them to better understand what they will be going through physically and mentally during spacewalks.
“Flying with them, you get to know them in their environment. You’ll hear more from a pilot in the cockpit of an airplane than you will ever hear in the clinic,” he said.
“Participating in training with them goes a long way toward building the relationship, and also gives the flight surgeon a perspective. When they are monitoring a spacewalk from the console in the control center, they have an idea how much work it is. They have an idea what’s going on with the astronaut in space.”
Also monitoring every move of the astronauts are, of course, their families, and NASA provides support for them as well, answering questions the astronauts may not have time to deal with during the hectic weeks leading up to a mission.
Astronauts rarely have time to worry, for example, about the inherent risks they are taking by flying into space, Kavandi said. “For the families, however, worry about risk and safety is high, so we arrange briefings for them several months before launch – a year in advance for ISS missions,” she said. “We explain what is going to happen, general procedures about the timing of events; we try to make them aware of everything so they won’t have any surprises.”
NASA also offers psychological support to all astronauts and their families, and helps them keep in touch during extended missions aboard the space station with phone calls and video conferencing so astronauts can see their loved ones while on orbit.
Kavandi said the close relationships the astronauts and their support teams develop on the ground and the opportunities they have to work with intelligent people makes working for NASA a joy. Flying in space, which she has done three times, is her second-favorite thing, even though she has always been fascinated by the stars and spent hours sitting outside with her dad as a kid, looking up at the brilliant skies above the Missouri farm where she grew up.
On her first shuttle flight to the Russian space station Mir in 1998, “I remember tears streaming down my face” on the launch pad, she said.
“It wasn’t because I was scared. It was just the culmination of all those dreams on that back porch in Missouri and the realization that I was actually going into space,” she said. “I was just overjoyed. It was just the best day.”
Like most astronauts, she loved looking at Earth from space and marveled at seeing the Mediterranean Sea, making out the shape of Italy and watching lightning storms over Africa.
“It’s just indescribable, how pretty it is, how unique the images are,” she said. She also remembers some devastating images of deforestation and runoff in Africa and the Amazon, and air pollution over Southeast Asia that obscured her view of the planet’s surface. “It’s disappointing to see these things, but I’m honored with the flight to be one of the few who gets to see this firsthand,” she said. Back on the ground, she makes a point of sharing what she has learned with other scientists.
“I try to impress upon them, yes, indeed, I saw this event happening. We are probably going too far with this or that,” she said.
Altman agreed the view from space, whether the images are positive or negative, is incredibly moving. But his biggest surprise aboard the shuttle and station was actually moving wherever he pleased in the weightlessness of zero gravity.
“You think you can understand with your mind, but you are so used to ‘up’ and ‘down.’ It was a good feeling being able to use this extra space, to float on the ceiling,” he said.
“The first four hours you are a little slow, but then it feels like you’ve been up there your whole life.”
For Altman, who dreamed of being a pilot from the time he was 3 years old after watching TV reruns of Sky King, flying faster and higher as an astronaut is the thrill of a lifetime.
“We’re on the edge of a very exciting time in space, and to some extent, I envy the next [astronaut] classes,” he said. “I think there are people here now who will bridge the gap between the end of the shuttle and the start of our lunar missions and I wouldn’t mind being one of them.”
Ross said many share that attitude.
“The last time we went to the moon was the early ‘70s, and a lot of folks here now were not even born then,” he said. “If you ask any astronaut, they would all say, ‘Absolutely.’
“They are ready to go.”