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Report Calls on NASA to Hire More Astronauts

09/08/2011

Even as the space shuttle era has come to a close, a NASA-commissioned report says the space agency needs to hire more astronauts to maintain its presence on the International Space Station and prepare for the next generation of spaceflight. The report warns that “the Astronaut Corps appears to be sized below the minimum required” and that the current corps size “poses a risk to the US investment in human spaceflight capabilities.” NASA commissioned the report from the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, to examine the agency’s astronaut and astronaut training needs in the post-shuttle era. NASA Spokesman Michael Curie said that the report “offers helpful advice about the appropriate size of our astronaut corps as we enter this exciting new era of space exploration and crew transport operations.” Beginning in November 1983 with Owen Garriott, W5LFL, on board STS-9, Amateur Radio has been an integral part of NASA missions in space. More than 100 NASA astronauts have received their Amateur Radio license.

Today, NASA has 59 astronauts, down from 150 a decade ago. According to The Washington Post, observers expect the agency to lose another half-dozen before the end of the year. While the report does not recommend a specific number of astronauts, it does point out that the extensive training required, non-spaceflight tasks and the medical demands of long tours of duty on the ISS could lead to astronaut shortages within five years.

In 2009, NASA hired nine astronaut candidates and hopes to add nine more in 2012 and six in 2014, according to Peggy Whitson, chief of NASA’s astronaut office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Wayne Hale, a former space shuttle launch director, reviewed the report. “New astronauts are needed in the pipeline,” he told The Washington Post. “It takes quite a while to train people for human spaceflight.” According to the report, basic space station training takes 2.5years, with 31 weeks of that spent in Russia training on the Soyuz and learning Russian.

Medical issues can keep otherwise qualified astronauts grounded. In January 2011, according to the report, the astronaut office needed to choose two crew members for future space station missions. Of the 63 on the roster, only six were medically qualified and available. The reports notes that astronauts who go to the ISS often cannot return to space for three years or more as they recover from lost bone mass. Also, of 15 ISS crew members examined by NASA physicians, seven had developed a vision problem called papilledema that disqualified them from further flights until the problem was resolved.

Crash of Supply Vehicle Might Delay ISS Expeditions

NASA has said that it expects to send four to six astronauts to the ISS each year for six-month rotations. But the August crash of a Russian re-supply rocket has grounded the Soyuz, the only vehicle capable of flying crew members to the station. NASA noted that the Russian crash might lead the agency to temporarily abandon the ISS this fall unless the Russians quickly troubleshoot the problem. “We will understand, to our satisfaction, the anomaly, what is believed to be the cause and how they resolved it,” said NASA ISS Program Manager Michael Suffredini in a press conference after the crash. “If we’re not happy, we won’t put our astronauts on the Soyuz.” In April, NASA awarded $269million to four companies developing craft to deliver cargo and crew to the space station.

“Our Russian colleagues have immediately begun the process of assessing implications of the program and ISS crew, and to assess the data that’s available to try to determine root cause,” Suffredini said. He added everyone is now trying hard “to give our Russian colleagues time to gather data and sort it out and find important details.” Since the Russian Soyuz crew module also flies on a Soyuz rocket, albeit a different version, the implications for crew rotation are not yet known, and Russian teams are gathering data to sort out the cause of the malfunction to the normally reliable spacecraft. Suffredini said the current crew can stay on board extra time if necessary; if a delay for next Soyuz crew goes longer than anticipated, they will bring part of crew home and operate the ISS with a crew of three. While the accident represents a setback, Suffredini said the ISS crew was not in danger of running out of supplies and had enough to last until a March 2012 visit by a European cargo mission. “We can go several months without a resupply vehicle if that becomes necessary,” he said.

There are currently four hams on board the ISS: Ron Garan, KF5GPO (NASA), Mike Fossum, KF5AQG (NASA), Sergei Volkov, RU3DIS (RKA), and Satoshi Furukawa, KE5DAW (JAXA). The other two cosmonauts -- Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev -- are not licensed. Currently, Expedition 29 is scheduled to launch for the ISS on September 22 with a crew of three aboard the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft: Dan Burbank, KC5ZSX, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin. -- Thanks to NASA and The Washington Post for the information



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