Date: Sept. 7, 2011
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NASA Needs to Preserve Skilled Astronaut Corps In Post-Shuttle Era, Says New Report
"With the retirement of the shuttle program and the uncertainty during the transition to a fully operational ISS, it's even more important that the talent level, diversity, and capabilities of the astronaut office be sustained," said Joe Rothenberg, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and a former senior NASA official now with the SSC (previously known as the Swedish Space Corp). "Making sure NASA maintains adequate training facilities is also essential to ensure a robust astronaut corps."
The number of NASA astronauts has been substantially reduced in recent years -- from nearly 150 in 2000 to 61 astronauts in 2011, the report says. Much of this decrease was due to the planned retirement of the space shuttle and the transition from building to operating the ISS. The model NASA uses to predict minimum staffing requirements cannot fully account for uncertainties, such as retirements and astronauts who may experience temporary or permanent medical disqualifications. Therefore, NASA includes a management margin in calculating astronaut requirements. The committee recommended that NASA increase the margin it uses to estimate these management needs in order to maintain a mission-ready fleet of trained professionals who can safely operate the ISS.
"Viewed as a supply chain, astronaut selection and training is very sensitive to critical shortfalls; astronauts who are trained for specific roles and missions can't be easily interchanged," said committee co-chair Frederick Gregory, former commander of three shuttle missions who also served as NASA's deputy administrator.
While the retirement of the space shuttle program has reduced certain training requirements for NASA astronauts, operating the ISS imposed many complicated new ones that take years of training, the report says. Astronauts must now be familiar not only with
Astronauts' health, especially over long-duration flights, is another significant factor in determining staffing needs. Health requirements are stringent to prevent the early termination of ISS expeditions out of medical necessity. Thirteen astronauts have become medically ineligible for long-duration missions after being assigned to a mission but before they could actually fly, making clear the need for adequate replacement staff with a range of skills. Also, due to a variety of medical conditions including vision problems, bone loss, physical injuries, or radiation exposure, not all astronauts returning from long-duration missions will re-qualify for ISS missions.
The report also stresses the need for NASA to retain its crew-related ground facilities in the post-shuttle era, including the astronaut corps' fleet of T-38N Talon two-seat training aircraft. Emergency response in an aircraft environment has been shown to ready astronauts for anomalies in actual spaceflight, the report says. The aircraft help crew members develop the skills and ability to work together in fast-paced, physically stressful situations with potentially severe penalties for failure. Astronauts flying in the back seat of the aircraft train to perform critical tasks such as communications, navigation, and emergency response in a demanding environment that cannot be effectively simulated by other means.
The study was sponsored by NASA. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering,
Report in Brief
Molly Galvin, Senior Media Relations Officer
Lorin Hancock, Media Relations Associate
Shaquanna Shields, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
Pre-publication copies of Preparing for the High Frontier: The Role and Training of NASA Astronauts in the Post-Space Shuttle Era are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at . Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
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NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Air Force Studies Board
Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board
Committee on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations
Frederick Gregory (co-chair)
Lohfeld Consulting Group Inc. (retired)
Joseph H. Rothenberg (co-chair)
Independent Consultant, and
Senior Vice President for International Development
Michael J. Cassutt
Richard O. Covey
Senior Vice President
National Security Programs
Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies Inc.
Bonnie J. Dunbar*
William W. Hoover
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Programs
U.S. Air Force (retired); and
Thomas D. Jones
Senior Research Scientist
Planetary Scientist and Consultant
Franklin D. Martin
Martin Consulting Inc.
Distinguished Professor and Chair of Computational Engineering
David S. Lewis Associate Professor of Cognitive Engineering
Schools of Aerospace Engineering and Industrial and Systems Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology
Richard N. Richards
Deputy Program Manager
Boeing Corp. (retired), and
James D. Von Suskil
Vice President of Nuclear Oversight
Dwayne A. Day