Jan 18, 2022 - Science

A new NASA astronaut corps for the next era in space

Illustration of a series of astronauts getting larger and wearing progressively better space suits, similar to the March of Progress illustration.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA's next crewed missions to the Moon will need a larger, differently-trained and multi-skilled astronaut corps to deliver on the agency's ambitions.

Why it matters: NASA has plans to fly astronauts to the surface of the Moon in 2025 and ultimately establish a long-term presence there. That goal requires a robust corps with new, specialized training in what it takes to live and work on the Moon — and NASA needs to start planning now.

Driving the news: NASA will need to grow the number of astronauts in its active corps in order to satisfy its requirements for lunar missions, according to a new report from NASA's Office of Inspector General.

  • At the moment, there are 44 astronauts that make up NASA's active astronaut corps, far lower than its peak of almost 150 in 2000 during the space shuttle program. The relatively small number is fine for current needs on the International Space Station, but it will need to grow in order to crew Artemis missions to the Moon.
  • The OIG also pointed out that NASA doesn't keep detailed demographic data on all of its astronauts — particularly those detailed to the space agency from military branches — making it hard to know whether NASA is meeting its diversity goals.
  • Training also needs to be updated to help prepare astronauts for Artemis missions, in order to make sure they're prepared to fly aboard a new vehicle and rocket, collect samples from the Moon and perform various novel science experiments.

Yes, but: Experts caution that NASA shouldn't take on too many astronauts at any given time due to the risk of low morale caused by potentially long waits for a flight assignment.

  • "It's demoralizing to sit around for 15 years waiting for a flight when that's a thing you've wanted to do since you're a kid, or the reason you gave up your high paying job working for Lockheed or you got off your PhD, postdoc track at Cornell or left your military career," Michael Cassutt, an author and historian, told Axios.
  • NASA does have a process for determining who gets assigned to any given mission to the International Space Station, but the agency has yet to finalize a framework that will work for Moon mission assignments, which will have different scientific and engineering requirements.

Background: The astronaut corps has gone through a number of transformations since NASA was established.

  • The first astronauts were test pilots pulled from military backgrounds and were entirely male and white. Eventually the agency diversified its corps, recruiting some white women and people of color from a variety of backgrounds.
  • Some current astronauts have helped develop the Artemis program but they may not be in a position to fly due to family needs, age or other concerns, space historian Robert Pearlman and editor of collectspace.com told Axios. That means NASA will need more astronauts trained that could help take their places.

The big picture: Other space agencies around the world are starting to change their requirements for who gets to be an astronaut.

  • The European Space Agency recently started recruiting people with certain disabilities who may one day fly in space, and Japan's space agency has dropped its requirement for potential astronauts to have a four-year college degree.
  • NASA, on the other hand, requires that all serious applicants have at least a Master's degree in a STEM field.
  • Despite those high requirements, NASA has had no trouble getting enough applications in recent rounds, with record breaking numbers submitted.

What to watch: NASA may look for more geologists and scientists whose skills and expertise would be valuable for exploring the Moon's surface.

  • By selecting more scientists, the agency will also bring those skills to their astronaut classes at large, allowing them to learn from one another, Cassutt said.
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