NASA is at a crossroads. The agency faces nearly a decade without the launch of American rockets, leaving some to question whether the United States will lose its astronaut corps and its place as a leader in space.
“I firmly believe if we lose this talent, it won’t be to another state or industry, but to another country,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, at a recent meeting of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
“It’s interesting [she] should say that since the House is proposing cutting NASA’s budget next year,” said former astronaut Wendy Lawrence, who flew on the Space Shuttle four times in 10 years and left NASA in 2006. Lawrence expressed widespread disappointment with bungled planning and implementation of a follow-up to the Space Shuttle program.
The Constellation program, set to follow-up the Space Shuttle program with manned flights to the moon by 2020, was scrapped in October 2010 when yearly budget cuts left the program gutted and hopelessly behind schedule.
“Logically, I understand that it’s time to retire the [Space Shuttle] and move on to something else,” Lawrence said. “The frustrating thing is that there doesn’t seem to really be a plan that’s specific in the details for that something.”
The lack of a clear plan could make the space program less attractive to astronauts in the corps, or those looking to join. Johnson said she is “worried that in the post-shuttle era, we here in America will forget how important [NASA’s] R&D investments are to our future, and how critical this skilled workforce is to our future competitiveness.”
But even if astronauts leave NASA, said Lawrence, it isn’t necessarily a lost investment.
“Astronauts are the type of people who want to have a meaningful job and feel like they’re making a contribution,” she said. While some will remain with NASA, others will make their contributions to the space program through jobs in the private space sector or by passing on their knowledge through teaching.
Lawrence is now an educator, working with grade school students in the Sally Ride Sciences program and university students through the American Public University System. Lawrence is an adjunct professor in space studies at the American Military University, a branch of APUS that serves military students. She said teaching young engineers and pilots about space is just as valuable as her work at the agency.
And she isn’t the only former astronaut on the faculty.
Jim Reilly, who flew three Space Shuttle missions, is the Dean of the School of Science & Technology at APUS and said he finds as much thrill in being on the frontier of the education sector as he did in space. “We’re really pushing boundaries here in the online education world,” said Reilly.
Reilly moved on from his role at NASA in 2009, and said he’s just as satisfied giving back to the space program through education as he was during his time at NASA.
It’s not just education that draws astronauts away from government jobs. The private spaceflight industry is taking off — and taking some former astronauts with it. NASA’s plan is to outsource the shuttling of astronauts to low-earth orbit, saving its budget for longer-distance exploration, which has opened up areas of growth for private companies.
“This is, to me, a logical step,” said Lawrence. “If NASA’s going to have limited resources made available, free up those resources to let NASA focus on sending people farther away from this planet.”
Though private spaceflight jobs are limited, several astronauts have found work advising companies like SpaceX or the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Orbital Sciences Corporation. Only about 500 people have ever flown in space, so most of the engineers working in the private spaceflight sector don’t know what it’s like to launch on a rocket. That’s where having former astronauts on staff comes in handy.
Not all the astronauts are leaving NASA. The corps is still 60 strong, and will most likely need to select more candidates to fulfill the work requirements for future missions.
The United States still has a manned space program that sends astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets, but Johnson and other members on her committee are concerned that without American rockets flying soon, NASA will have trouble attracting the next generation of space explorers.
Astronaut Mike Fincke, who served on the final flight of the Endeavor Shuttle under Commander Mark Kelly and holds the American record for most time in space, said Johnson has a valid concern. But he has chosen to stay with NASA through the gap years, both for the stability the job offers him and his family, and because of his life-long passion for space travel.
He estimates that about 35 percent of his fellow astronauts will leave NASA, either to find new work, or out of necessity. Some astronauts who may want to finish out their careers in the next decade are too tall to fly on the Soyuz rockets, so they’re effectively grounded until the private space industry picks up the slack.
Fincke has high hopes for the private sector and said he sees it becoming ubiquitous in the same way that airplane technology spread. Airplanes used to be primarily used by the military, but with a little seed money from the government and innovations in technology, the private airline industry took off.
“We’re at that same place in the space industry,” he said. For now, Fincke is supporting missions on the International Space Station and hoping to go back up on a Soyuz rocket to the ISS on his next flight.
NASA is working with the private spaceflight companies to successfully launch a manned flight by 2017. Fincke said these years without a main spaceflight program are crucial for the United States.
“We can’t mess this up,” he said. “A fumble could look like another 20 to 30 billion dollars of American taxpayer money, which is tougher to come by these days, and really nothing to show for it.”
Still, Fincke is hopeful about the future of American manned spaceflight. “I’m really excited about the future,” he said. “I’m not excited that we have to wait so long to get there, but there are some very interesting things coming along.”