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Surplus astronaut right-sizing imminent at NASA?

Obama Constellation cancellation means jobless spacemen

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There is concern at NASA regarding how to find work for all its astronauts following the demise of the space shuttle fleet and President Obama's bid to axe the shuttles' planned manned spaceflight successor, the Constellation programme.

If the Obama administration's plans are accepted by Congress, two of NASA's main humans-in-space activities will be gone, leaving nothing for astronauts to do but help crew the International Space Station (ISS), a task which is shared with most of the other spacegoing nations in the world.

“We will be going from three large programs to one in a six-month span,” said Mike Coats, chief of NASA's Johnson Space Centre - home to the astronaut corps - earlier this week. “That is a big impact. I’m very anxious about how we maintain our core competencies, human space flight, space operations and astronaut training.”

The shuttle fleet is to be retired at the end of this year, following the five remaining flights necessary to complete the ISS. Shuttle Endeavour is in orbit now delivering a new observation cupola and station section, and just four more flights will follow. After that, the only way to and from the orbiting facility will be by Russian Soyuz craft.

NASA had planned under the Bush administration to build new Ares rockets - a smaller one for lifting astronauts and an unmanned heavy-lift job for firing large cargoes into orbit - and a manned spacecraft called Orion, plus other ancillary gear. This would allow the assembly in Earth orbit of craft capable of returning astronauts to the Moon, and then perhaps to Mars.

But Congress never agreed to fully fund the former President's plan, and after much pondering the Obama administration has decided it wants to axe Constellation. In its place, more funds will be channelled into an existing scheme for private rocket firms - for instance Elon Musk's SpaceX - to provide space lift under NASA contract. This may now develop into privately-built manned craft: SpaceX for one already has plans for a "Dragon" capsule to be launched by its Falcon 9 rocket design.

The President also wants to extend the ISS itself beyond its planned demise in 2015 until at least 2020, which will offer some work for US astronauts - and for the private rocket firms, in shipping up supplies and then perhaps crews.

Plans for development of manned flight capability beyond low Earth orbit still exist, but have been effectively pushed back out of the new decade - suggesting that in fact no mission beyond Earth can now be ready to go much before the 2030s. Voyages outside the immediate vicinity of the Earth-Moon system may not now be on the cards any sooner than 2050, if ever.

“When we talk about going to distant places like Mars, the moon, an asteroid, we will not be able to take someone off the street, train them for a few weeks and expect them to go off and do the types of missions we will demand of them,” said NASA head Charles Bolden, briefing reporters alongside Coats. “We can’t do that today. To me, that requires a professional cadre of astronauts.”

NASA currently has 88 active-status astronauts and a further 24 in managerial jobs across the space agency. Both Bolden and Coats, for instance, have flown in space.

Doubtless Bolden is correct that a deep-space astronaut can't be trained in weeks. However, it now appears that no such mission is likely to take place for 20 years or more - not if America is to fund it, anyway.

The only likely employment for the current 88 NASA spacemen and women is the six-person ISS, which is also the sole job for almost all other astronauts on Earth: those of Europe - including the sole British spaceman, Tim Peake, now under training - Canada, Russia and Japan. Station crews change over on a 4-6 month cycle, meaning that on average an astronaut can only expect to go into space every decade or so.

Job losses or voluntary redundancies among the space-ace community would certainly seem to be on the cards. Another 7,000 Earthbound jobs at the Johnson Space Centre are also associated with the Shuttle and Constellation programmes. ®

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