Sometime in the future passenger-paying flights into space may likely become as routine as air travel. The fledgling space tourism industry is slowly developing with the promise of commercial suborbital flights in the very near future. Private enterprises, as of 2011, are in various stages of providing still-expensive commercial suborbital flights into space, with orbital space flights as their next step. For instance, Virgin Galactic is hoping to begin sub-orbital flights for paying customers sometime in the first half of the 2010s. However, in the early twenty-first century, opening up the frontier of is still the duty of a select cadre of highly trained individuals. These are career astronauts, people whose professional job it is to work and live in space in such roles as commander, pilot, or crewmember of a spacecraft. Other names are sometimes applied to such professional space travelers when in other countries, such as career cosmonauts in Russia, or when performed for privately held companies, such as career commercial astronauts* .
In the United States, the early pioneering days of human spaceflight gave rise to individuals with what American author Tom Wolfe called the “right stuff.” These individuals were tough-as-nails experimental aircraft test pilots. They were critical in getting America's human spaceflight program, quite literally, off the ground. During the 1960s, and continuing through the 1970s, a unique corps of astronauts flew in the U.S. Mercury* , Gemini* , Apollo* , and Skylab programs.
Today, after nearly sixty years of human sojourns into suborbital trajectories, low Earth orbits* , and to the Moon, 518 people (from 38 countries), according to Fédêation Aéonautique Internationale (FAI) guidelines, have departed Earth and attained at least a minimum altitude of 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) from Earth's surface (as of August 31, 2011).
In addition, seven U.S. pilots reached an altitude of at least 80 kilometers (50 miles) into space (according to the Department of Defense definition of space) when they flew sub-orbital flights on the X-15 space plane. Since 1981, a majority of these space-faring individuals have been boosted into space courtesy of the U.S. space shuttle fleet. For instance, the first space shuttle flight was launched on April 12, 1981, when the space shuttle Columbia went into space commanded by John Young and piloted by Robert Crippen, the first two career astronauts for the space shuttle program.
Indeed, space travel has come a long way, from the early single-person “capsule” to the winged flight of a space shuttle, and now to pending
privately funded trips to outer space piloted by commercial astronauts and still developing government sponsored trips to asteroids, the planet Mars, and other bodies in the Solar System.
Types and Duties of NASA Astronauts
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recruited pilot astronaut candidates and mission specialist astronaut candidates to support the space shuttle–formally called the Space Transportation System (STS) program—which began in 1981 and ended in 2011.
Since August 2011, NASA recruits astronaut candidates only for its International Space Station (ISS) program, now that its STS program has been completed. As of August 31, 2011, the ISS has been continually staffed with crewmembers since November 2, 2000. Persons from both the civilian sector and the military services are considered for ISS duty. Applicants for the NASA Astronaut Candidate Program must be citizens of the United States. However, international astronauts are accepted by NASA from countries that have their own space agencies, such as Japan's Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Canada's Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Russia's Russian Federal Space Agency (RKA, or Roscosmos), and the European Union's European Space Agency (ESA).
The crewmembers onboard the International Space Station are called flight engineers (similar to mission specialists on the space shuttle) and commanders (similar to shuttle pilots and commanders). Once a flight engineer is a member of an ISS mission, which is called an Expedition, then they may be promoted to commander on a future mission. For instance, Peggy Whitson was the first female commander of an ISS Expedition mission; specifically, Expedition 16 in 2007. However, her first stint on the International Space Station was in 2002 where she was a flight engineer on the Expedition 5 mission, which gave her the needed experience to later become an ISS commander.
Flight engineer astronauts, working under the direction of the ISS commander, have overall responsibility for the coordination of space station operations in the areas of crew activity planning, consumables usage, and payload operations. Flight engineers are required to have detailed knowledge of space station systems, as well as detailed knowledge of the operational characteristics, mission requirements and objectives, and supporting systems and equipment for each payload* element on their assigned missions. Flight engineers perform spacewalks* (extravehicular activities [EVAs]), use remote manipulator systems* to handle payloads, and performed or assisted in specific experiments. Flight engineers also perform payload operations* and science experiments on the ISS. They sometimes perform spacewalks outside of the station when repair or maintenance work or additions to the structure are needed.
Commanders in the International Space Station are responsible for the overall success of their mission, along with the safety of their Expedition crew and the space station as a whole. All ISS commanders must have
prior spaceflight experience, especially many previous hours working aboard the space station on past ISS missions.
As of August 31, 2011, the Expedition 28 crew is onboard the ISS. They include commander Andrey Borisenko of Russia, and flight engineers Alexander Samokutyaev, Mike Fossum and Ron Garan (both from the United States), Sergei Volkov (Russia), and Satoshi Furukawa (Japan).
An exciting new era of space exploration is underway with the completion of the International Space Station (ISS), which is scheduled to be completed in 2012, with the addition of a Russian laboratory module. The development of this orbital facility has been called the largest international scientific and technological endeavor ever undertaken. The ISS will likely be used as a starting off point for future NASA explorations of the Solar System that includes a manned visit to an asteroid and eventually a trip to the planet Mars.
The ISS is designed to house six people, and a permanent laboratory has been established within it in a realm where gravity, temperature, and pressure can be used in a variety of scientific and engineering pursuits that are more difficult to recreate in ground-based laboratories. The ISS is a test bed for the technologies of the future and a laboratory for research on new, advanced industrial materials, communications technology, and medical research. For all of its promise for the future, the people aboard the ISS are still the most important aspect of the International Space Station. These explorers continue to lead the way out into space for the rest of the human race.
Requirements for Applicants
What minimum requirements must an individual meet prior to submitting an application for astronaut status at NASA? All candidates to be NASA astronauts must be U.S. citizens and pass a comprehensive physical examination.
For a flight engineer astronaut candidate, an individual must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, a biological or physical science, or mathematics. The degree must be followed by at least three years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for part or the entire experience requirement (a master's degree is considered equivalent to one year of experience, while a doctoral degree equals three years of experience). The quality of the academic preparation is important. Individuals must also pass a NASA Class II space physical, which is similar to a military or civilian Class II flight physical, and includes the following specific standards:
- Distance visual acuity: 20/200 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, each eye
- Blood pressure: not greater than 140/90 measured in a sitting position
- Height: between 157.5 and 193 centimeters (58.5 and 76 inches)
The minimum requirement for a commander/pilot astronaut candidate is a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, a biological or physical science, or mathematics. However, service in the U.S. Air Force can exempt this requirement. An advanced degree is desirable. The quality of the academic preparation is important. At least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft are necessary. Flight test experience is highly desirable. Applicants must pass a NASA Class I space physical, which is similar to a military or civilian Class I flight physical, and includes the following specific standards:
- Distant visual acuity: 20/70 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, each eye
- Blood pressure: not greater than 140/90 measured in a sitting position
- Height: between 162.6 and 193 centimeters (62 and 76 inches)
- Eye surgical procedures are allowed, but at least one year must have passed from the date of application without any permanent problems from the procedure
Screening and Training
Beyond the initial application requirements, NASA's astronaut selection involves a rigorous physical and mental screening process designed to cull the best and brightest from those who are applying. Part of the screening process is psychological evaluation of the candidates. Two hours of interviews are required of the candidates from psychiatrists and psychologists. In fact, in July 1999, a NASA call for astronauts produced more than 4,000 applicants. A mere 3% made the first cut. From there, further screening by the Astronaut Selection Board led to a final twenty candidates. In 2009, NASA finalized the latest round of astronaut applicants—the last class in five years. The space agency had about 3,500 applicants and selected only nine candidates from the group, less than 0.3% of the original applicants. This 2009 class of astronauts is the twentieth group since the “Original Seven” Mercury astronauts were selected in 1959. With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011, these astronauts will be training to work onboard the International Space Station and to fly on the Russian Soyuz space capsule (and possibly some not-yet-operational private spacecraft). As NASA develops its next-generation manned space program, these astronaut trainees will likely also train within mock-ups of an advanced designed space capsule—the replacement for NASA's shuttle.
Those who make the grade as astronaut trainees are trained at NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center just outside of Houston, Texas. The selected applicants are designated astronaut candidates and undergo a one- to two-year training and evaluation period during which time they participate in the basic astronaut-training program. This effort is designed to develop the knowledge and skills required for formal mission training upon selection for a flight or mission. During their candidate period, pilot astronaut candidates must maintain proficiency in NASA aircraft.
As part of the astronaut candidate training program, trainees are required to complete military water survival exercises prior to beginning their flying studies and become scuba qualified to prepare them for space-walking training. Consequently, all astronaut candidates are required to pass a swimming test during their first month of training. They must swim three lengths of a 25-meter (82-foot) pool without stopping, and then swim three lengths of the pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes. The strokes allowed are freestyle, breaststroke, and sidestroke. There is no time limit. The candidates must also tread water continuously for ten minutes.
To simulate microgravity* , astronaut candidates have previously boarded the infamous “Vomit Comet,” a converted Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker jet aircraft. In 2005, the two airplanes were replaced with a McDonnell Douglas C-9B Skytrain II airplane and given the official nickname: the “Weightless Wonder.” Flown on a parabolic trajectory* , this airplane can produce periods of microgravity for some twenty seconds. Akin to an airborne version of a roller coaster, the parabolic maneuvers are repeated up to forty times a day. Those riding inside the aircraft experience microgravity similar to that felt in orbital flight, although in short bursts.
One very important note: Selection as a candidate does not ensure selection as an astronaut. Final selection is based on the satisfactory completion of the one-year program. As of August 31, 2011, NASA is not accepting further applications for astronaut candidates. However, further classes will be generated as NASA continues to ramp up its new manned space program for the 2010s and beyond.
Salaries for civilian astronaut candidates are based on the federal government's general schedule pay scales for grades GS-11 through GS-14 and are set in accordance with each individual's academic achievements and experience. Selected military personnel are assigned to the Johnson Space Center but remain in an active duty status for pay, benefits, leave, and other similar military matters.
The latest groups of astronauts selected by NASA will likely participate in its new manned spaceflight program, which is expected to become operational in the mid- to late 2010s. They will be trained to deal with long missions to the International Space Station and with even longer missions to asteroids, the Moon, Mars, and other possible destinations as the United States continues to explore the inner Solar System with its career astronauts. NASA states, “The astronauts of the 21st century will help lead NASA through the next steps of its Vision for Space Exploration as we explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”
Other career astronauts
Besides U.S. astronauts who perform space-related work for NASA, several other countries also have career astronauts. For many decades, Soviet cosmonauts plied their trade, first as competitors with the United States and now as Russian allies to America's exploration of space. The Russian
equivalent to NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), coordinates the work of these cosmonauts as they work alongside U.S. astronauts (and other countries' astronauts) aboard the International Space Station. These cosmonauts go into space and return to Earth through Russia's reliable Soyuz space capsule and rocket system.
In addition, the Chinese manned space program recently sent its first career astronaut (or taikonaut) into space when Yang Liwei was launched aboard Shenzhou 5 in October 2003. Liwei became the first Chinese to be sent into space directly by its Chinese space program, the China National Space Administration (CNSA). Since then, two taikonauts were sent aboard Shenzhou 6 on October 2005, and Zhai Zhigang became the first Chinese astronaut to walk in space during his Shenzhou 7 mission in 2008, which also involved two other Chinese astronauts. As of September 2011, six Chinese astronauts have gone into space. China is now the third country to be able to send people directly into space.
Private organizations are also gearing up to send paying customers into space. Consequently, pilots are needed for these pioneering flights. A new type of astronaut has resulted, what is being called a commercial astronaut. These commercial (or professional) astronauts will be trained to command, pilot, or serve as crewmembers on privately funded spacecraft. For instance, the first commercial astronaut to go into space was Michael “Mike” Melvill, who piloted the experimental spaceplane called SpaceShipOne for Scaled Composites. On June 21, 2004, Melvill piloted flight 15P on the first privately funded (non-government) trip into space as part of the Ansari X Prize competition. On October 4, 2004, Brian Binnie, also for Scaled Composites, became the second commercial astronaut to go into space when he piloted SpaceShipOne on flight 17P.
Currently, several private spaceflight organizations are attempting to develop spacecraft to deliver cargo and/or humans into space. Virgin Galactic, using spacecraft developed by Scaled Composites (in a partnership called The Spaceship Company), seems to have the best chance to become the first privately funded company to send paying customers into space with the use of its career commercial astronauts. Richard Branson heads Virgin Galactic, while Burt Rutan leads Scaled Composites. Although a firm date has yet to be set, the first commercial flight into space by this organization is hoped for sometime in the mid-2010s.
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