Selected from a pool of 18,000 applicants, the most ever in NASA’s history, Kim’s class has options unmatched before – the ability to fly two new commercially developed spacecraft designed to go to the International Space Station and a third capsule designed to take astronauts to the moon.
This is a significant change from the previous decade, when the only way to space after the space shuttle was withdrawn in 2011 was to land on a Russian rocket that exploded from a deserted launch pad in Kazakhstan ̵
Now, there are a number of flight options that are going to work, all from Cape Canaveral that can give astronauts a range of flight options that have not been seen in decades. There’s SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which in May became the first spacecraft to launch NASA astronauts from US soil in nearly a decade. Boeing is also working on getting its Starliner capsule ready with a first crew plane set for next year. And NASA hopes Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft will fly astronauts on an orbit around the moon by 2023.
All of this means that it’s an exciting time to be an astronaut, especially as the much coveted assignments for the 48-member NASA Astronaut Corps in Houston are being handed out. It’s also a chance for NASA to showcase its astronauts and try to revive the national enthusiasm they once inspired. In the decades since Apollo, where astronauts were household names and honored as heroes, they are now largely anonymous.
Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator and a former member of Congress, has led a kind of campaign to highlight this new generation of astronauts. He has pushed for astronauts to appear in commercials, even on grain crates. This, in turn, would not only raise the agency’s profile in popular culture, but also in Congress at a time when NASA is lobbying reluctant members for the money it needs to return humans to the moon.
“I want to see kids grow up, instead of maybe being like a professional sports star, I want to see them grow up and want to be a NASA astronaut or a NASA scientist,” Bridenstine said in 2018.
The last few months have seen a stream of activity. In May, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley became the first Americans to fly into orbit from U.S. soil since the space shuttle retired in 2011. The test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft opened the door to the first operational mission scheduled for next month. This flight will include a crew of four, NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, Michael Hopkins and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.
In August, shortly after the return of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, NASA announced that Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough were assigned to SpaceX’s second operational mission, sometime next year. So a few weeks later, Jeanette Epps was tapped to fly on Boeing’s not-yet-whistle Starliner. Still to come: the biggest task since Apollo: the crews of the first planes to the moon in about 50 years.
But how the tasks are done remains a mysterious process, kept secret. As it has been from the time of Mercury and Apollo, the astronaut office does not talk much about how it decides who to fly or why. When it comes to crew missions, NASA acts more like the NSA – the National Security Agency, the secret intelligence agency that some say stands for “Never Say Anything.”
“The process is also mysterious on the inside,” said Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut in an interview. “At the astronaut’s office, we used to say that the only thing that was more mysterious than being elected a crew member was how you were initially chosen to be an astronaut.”
No one knows better than Epps, who had been selected to fly on the Russian Soyuz in a mission that would have made her the first African-American to spend an extended period on the International Space Station, even though six have visited the orbiting laboratory.
But in 2018, Epps was suddenly pulled from the mission and replaced by Chancellor Serena Auñón, an astronaut. Rumors swirled – was it because Epps was black? Was there a conflict with her Russian colleagues? Even Epps, a former CIA technical intelligence officer, was amazed at the move and said months later, “I’m not sure the reasons myself.”
“A number of factors are taken into account when performing flight missions,” a NASA spokesman said at the time. “These decisions are personnel matters that NASA does not disclose.”
But Epps gets another shot, this time on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which is yet to be certified by NASA for human flight. Again, there was no explanation for the decision when it was announced last month. Just a brief press release from the Johnson Space Center in Houston that she would join NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada on the mission.
“They keep it very close,” said Janet Kavandi, who flew three space missions as a NASA astronaut and now heads the Sierra Nevada Corps space system company. “You usually have no idea you’re being considered for a mission.”
The election usually comes as a sudden and pleasant surprise: “It can be anywhere, anytime,” Kavandi said.
In the late 1990s, Kavandi was speaking at an elementary school and “kneeling deep in kindergarten” when she was suddenly summoned to the principal’s office to take an urgent phone call from the head of the astronaut office. Filled with fear, she knew this could not be good and bound herself about what was to come.
“I just wanted you to know that you have been assigned the mission,” she was told.
When former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino was selected for his first flight assignment, a mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002, Steve Smith, the deputy astronaut, knew the Friday before, but was sworn to secrecy until Monday. The couple were friends and neighbors with children of the same age, and they spent the weekend together.
Saturday was Massimino’s birthday, but Smith still could not say a word. So Monday morning at. At 7:30 a.m., Smith showed up at his neighbor’s front door “and handed me an illustrated children’s book about the Hubble Space Telescope.”
“What is that?” Massimino said, according to his memoir, “Rummand.”
“I think you should read about this best,” Smith said. “Because you’re going to Hubble.”
Massimino’s next mission was just as surprising. He and an astronaut met with Steve Lindsey, then the newly appointed head of the astronaut office, to discuss another upcoming mission to the Hubble Telescope. The astronauts looked confused as he talked about the information, so he stopped and said, “You know you’re at it, right?”
There are a few reasons why the astronaut office remains so mother about the flight missions. It’s a staff decision and a very public decision with big egos on the line. But there are also plenty of outside influences who want to wield power over the astronaut office – including Capitol Hill.
The withdrawal stems in part “to avoid policies that affect the selection process,” said Robert Pearlman, a space historian and journalist who edits the website CollectSpace.com. “It could be an opportunity for senators who want to see their home state astronauts fly.”
There have also been disagreements between the branches of the military that have sent officers to the astronaut corps. And the astronaut office rewards teamwork over individuality. The management in Houston strives to remain indifferent and fair among a few dozen of the most ambitious individuals on the planet.
“They want to avoid rivalry within the astronaut office itself, which would not be healthy for what is supposed to be a team working together to achieve a common goal,” Pearlman said.
Capacities matter, and so does experience. And the top astronaut primarily responsible for the decision looks at a number of factors, the most important of which is: “What will make the mission most successful,” said Peggy Whitson, who was chief astronaut from 2009 to 2012, a position that Pat Forrester has now had.
The International Space Station is a kind of flying Gilligan’s Island, where everyone must come together and bring their own individual expertise. If the mission requires a lot of repairs, you will want good space walkers. If there is a lot of science to be done, you will want astronauts who are skilled at, for example, studying rodents or cultivating human tissue.
“It’s going to be very complex,” Whitson said. “There are other factors as well: When did the person last fly? Who’s the turn to fly? Because you want to spread the fortune as much as possible. ”
When it came to the initial flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, NASA chose two of its best, Behnken and Hurley. Both are veteran astronauts and former military pilots who the agency knew would stay cool if something went wrong. For future missions, the more diverse team gathers, pairs rookies with experienced astronauts, scientists with military pilots to give the crews a broad expertise.
NASA has long been looking for a “mix of specialties and backgrounds so everyone could educate each other with the best of what they knew,” said Michael Cassutt, who has written biographies of Deke Slayton and George Abbey, both NASA legends who have spent many years selecting astronauts for missions.
The evaluation is rigorous, the training intense, and the stakes high because NASA is “giving you the responsibility for a multi-billion dollar car where failure can be fatal.”
Bridenstine has said the agency will send the “next man and the first woman” to go to the moon by 2024, an accelerated timeline dictated by the White House. It seems unlikely that the agency will be able to meet this deadline, but it is pushing ahead and plans to send astronauts on a trip to orbit the moon by 2023 as part of its Artemis program.
It has also had a PR advantage, which Bridenstine, in her quest to sell Congress on the White House’s lunar plane, has used to seek out members, especially Democrats. When he put rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-California) and House President Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) At an event last year, he got this reaction: “I’m looking forward to a female astronaut landing on the moon,” Eshoo said.
“As far as we get a woman to go to the moon, our hope runs on you, Jim.”
The selection of astronauts for these missions would be the most anticipated crew duties since the Apollo era 50 years ago. But it will be different in a key respect, Bridenstine said: He would like to see the missions showcase an astronaut corps that is far more diverse than the 1960s and 70s.
“When we select corps of astronauts to fly, they must reflect the nation as a whole,” he said in an interview. “It’s about inspiration. We want every single person to be able to see themselves doing what these American heroes are doing. ”