Date:  Sept. 7, 2011




NASA Needs to Preserve Skilled Astronaut Corps In Post-Shuttle Era, Says New Report


WASHINGTON -- NASA should take steps to ensure that it maintains a highly trained astronaut corps to meet International Space Station (ISS) crew requirements while accounting for unexpected attrition or demands of other missions, says a new report by the National Research Council. NASA's current plans for staffing the U.S. astronaut corps do not provide sufficient flexibility to reliably meet projected ISS mission needs. 


"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 U.S. equipment aboard the ISS but also with European, Japanese, and Russian station modules and equipment.  They must also be proficient at using space station software, conducting extravehicular activities, operating the space station's robotic arm, and numerous other tasks.  This year alone, astronauts will conduct 17 rendezvous and docking missions at the ISS.


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, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.


Additional Resources:
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

202-334-2138; e-mail




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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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)
Managing Director
Lohfeld Consulting Group Inc. (retired)
Annapolis, Md.


Joseph H. Rothenberg (co-chair)
Independent Consultant, and
Senior Vice President for International Development
Solna, Sweden


Michael J. Cassutt

Adjunct Professor

University of Southern California

Los Angeles 


Richard O. Covey
Independent Consultant
United Space Alliance LLC

Colorado Springs, Colo.

Duane Deal
Senior Vice President
National Security Programs
Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies Inc.

Greenbelt, Md.


Bonnie J. Dunbar*
Independent Consultant
Dunbar International LLC
Issaquah, Wash.


William W. Hoover
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Programs
U.S. Department of Energy;
Major General
U.S. Air Force (retired); and
Independent Consultant

Williamsburg, Va.


Thomas D. Jones
Senior Research Scientist
Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition, and
Planetary Scientist and Consultant
Reston, Va.


Franklin D. Martin
Martin Consulting Inc.
Morrisville, N.C.


Henry McDonald*
Distinguished Professor and Chair of Computational Engineering
University of Tennessee

Amy R. Pritchett
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
Independent Consultant

James D. Von Suskil

Vice President of Nuclear Oversight
NRG Texas





Dwayne A. Day

Study Director



*    Member, National Academy of Engineering