USA Today has published a misleading article on what it takes to become an astronaut.
USA Today equates becoming an astronaut with applying to NASA. For anyone planning an astronaut career today, that advice is woefully outdated, like suggesting that anyone who wants to go to America needs to sign up with Columbus. The great majority of astronauts in the next decade will not work for NASA.
NASA is flying far fewer astronauts today than in the past. During the height of the Shuttle program in the 1980’s, NASA flew as many as 35 astronauts in one year. That number fell substantially after the Challenger accident and plummeted in recent years with the retirement of the Space Shuttle. Due to limitations of the Soyuz program, NASA flew just four US astronauts in 2012. It expects to fly the same number in 2013 and 2014. NASA compensates for this low flight rate with much longer tours aboard the International Space Station, so station science hasn’t suffered too much, but flight opportunities for NASA astronaut are rare.
NASA hopes to increase the number of ISS crew slots when new transport systems such as the SpaceX Dragon, Boeing CST-100, or Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser come online. At that time, NASA may assign as many as six astronauts to ISS expeditions each year. In addition, a few astronauts may fly back and forth to the station as ferry crew. Still, the total number is not expected to approach the flight rate of the 1990’s, let alone the 1980’s.
NASA also hopes to sending astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit with the Lockheed Martin Orion Capsule. Again, the expected astronaut flight rate is very small. Given the enormous cost of Orion and its Space Launch System, NASA projects that its budget will support just two SLS missions (only one manned) each year. That translates into just four astronauts per year.
Worse, NASA may have to scrap the International Space Station to pay for SLS/Orion. If that happens, NASA may never be able to fly more than four astronauts per year.
USA Today acknowledges the long odds against anyone applying for an astronaut position with NASA:
For any given applicant, the odds of being selected as an astronaut are minute, regardless of how qualified he or she may be. Between 4,000 and 8,000 people enter each application round, and only eight to 35 are selected. Currently, NASA takes new trainees every four to five years, and this year, NASA waded through more than 6,000 applications, eventually whittling that pool to just eight people.
For pilots, the situation is even worse. USA Today says, “NASA shifted its focus [away from pilots] to a more diverse group of astronauts” but that is backwards spin. It’s not that flight opportunities for scientists and engineers have increased in recent, but opportunities for pilots have gone away entirely. The Soyuz is flown solely by Russian cosmonauts.
At the same time, however, Bigelow Aerospace is proceeding with development of its Space Station Alpha, which might support up to 12 astronauts at a time. Using Dragon and CST-100 capsules, Bigelow could support visits ranging from one week to 60 days, allowing dozens of astronauts to visit the station each year. Bigelow’s technology is also scaleable, allowing for larger stations in the future. Bigelow, Boeing, and SpaceX are likely to have their own astronaut corps, with flight rates exceed NASA’s.
More significantly, companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are developing suborbital vehicles that are expected to fly many thousands of times during the next decade. Col. Rick Searfoss, former Shuttle astronaut and chief test pilot for XCOR Aerospace, points out that a production model of the XCOR Lynx spacecraft might cost less than a college football stadium, an amount which fits easily into a university budget. A few year from now, major universities may have their own space programs and their own astronaut corps. The same may be true for large corporations, research institutions, and non-profit programs such as Citizens in Space.
This is in addition to the “space tourism” industry, which will allow anyone to become an astronaut merely by writing a check.
NASA could take advantage of the emerging space industry and use industry cabilities to expand its own astronaut program, of course, but there is serious question about whether Congress will have the foresight to allow that. If NASA continues down the present route, its connection to human spaceflight will be mainly historical.
Studying math, science, and engineering is still a good idea for those who want to become astronauts, as USA Today suggests. Applying to NASA will not be the only road to space, however, and will not be the road most people take.