More Than 12,000 Apply to Be Astronauts as NASA Makes Crew Dragon Assignments

More Than 12,000 Apply to Be Astronauts as NASA Makes Crew Dragon Assignments

More than 12,000 people have applied to become NASA astronauts as the agency announces two new crew members for the first operational SpaceX Crew Dragon mission.  NASA is projecting a business-as-usual image as it, the country, and the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic, offering a glimmer of optimism against the bleak landscape.

All of NASA is on mandatory telework, with 10 of its 18 field centers and facilities across the country in Stage 4 of its Response Framework and the others in Stage 3.  Only mission-essential personnel are allowed on-site in Stage 3.  In Stage 4, the limits are even stricter — only those needed to protect life and critical infrastructure.

But that did not deter the agency from sharing news about the future: more than 12,000 people have applied to become members of NASA’s astronaut corps.  NASA’s last application period was open December 2015-February 2016 when 18,300 threw their hats into the ring.  The lower number this time may reflect a shorter application period (one month instead of two) and the requirement for a master’s degree.

NASA’s Astronaut Selection Board will review them all and invite the most qualified for interviews and medical tests at Johnson Space Center.  The final group of “astronaut candidates” will be announced in the summer of next year. NASA did not say how many would be chosen.  Only 12 of the 18,300 made the cut when the selections were made in 2017.  They graduated from two years of training in January 2020, although one dropped out along the way.

They now are part of the 48-member astronaut corps. NASA anticipates the need for more to execute the Trump Administration’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 as part of a Moon-to-Mars effort that envisions people at Mars in the 2030s.

“The next class of Artemis Generation astronauts will help us explore more of the Moon than ever before and lead us to the Red Planet,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

At the moment, however, astronauts are sticking closer to home, travelling to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in Earth orbit. NASA has not been able to launch anyone to the ISS since 2011 when the space shuttle was terminated.  It pays Russia for crew transportation services.  But two new U.S. commercial crew systems are expected to begin flights this year.  They are being built as public-private partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing, which own the systems, not NASA.  As with Russia, NASA only purchases services from the companies.

NASA astronauts Vic Glover and Mike Hopkins in front of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. Credit: NASA

SpaceX is getting ready to launch its crewed flight test, Demo-2, to ISS in mid-late May. Two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will fly that mission, which is part of the certification process to demonstrate the system is safe. If all goes well, the first Post-Certification Mission (PCM) will follow later this year to begin operational service.

JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi. Credit: Robert Markowitz

NASA is purchasing four seats from SpaceX for the operational Crew Dragon flights. It announced two of the crew members for the first PCM in 2018: Victor Glover, Jr. and Mike Hopkins.

NASA astronaut Shannon Walker. Credit: NASA

Yesterday the other two were introduced: NASA’s Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The date for the flight has not been determined, but they will remain aboard the ISS for six months.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 countries operating under the aegis of the European Space Agency.  Pursuant to the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs the program, signed when the space shuttle was expected to resupply the ISS with crews and cargo throughout its lifetime, NASA is responsible for staffing the ISS with astronauts from all the countries except Russia.

In the press release announcing Walker’s addition to the PCM mission, NASA restated that the Demo-2 test flight with Hurley and Behnken is still expected in mid-late May.  That is a bit of a surprise.  NASA and SpaceX set that time-frame on March 18, the same day SpaceX experienced an engine failure during a Falcon 9 launch. It was carrying a set of 60 SpaceX Starlink communications satellites and they did achieve orbit using the other eight engines, but Falcon 9s will be used for the crew flights to ISS where such a failure could pose a safety risk to the crew. The failure is still under investigation.  SpaceX then encountered a problem during a test of parachutes needed for the crew flights.  Adding in the uncertainty of COVID-19 impacts on the agency and SpaceX, that time-frame seems likely to slip even though NASA and SpaceX remain optimistic.

NASA is anxious to get the commercial crew systems operational.  Russia cut back production of its Soyuz spacecraft because the U.S. systems were supposed to be ready by now.  Consequently, only two Soyuz will go to ISS each year instead of four, limiting the ISS crew size to three instead of six and only one will be American.  The next launch is on April 9 with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.  That is the last seat NASA purchased.  It is negotiating for another in October, but the agreement is not finalized yet.

Until Crew Dragon and/or Boeing’s Starliner are operational, U.S. activities on ISS will be sharply limited.  Starliner encountered a number of problems during an uncrewed test flight in December and its schedule is uncertain.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.