Sunday, January 09, 2011

63 and Counting Down

Best wishes to the family of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and condolences to the families of those lost Saturday. Giffords' husband is astronaut Mark Kelly, training for STS-134. That mission will launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. Mark's twin brother Scott Kelly is currently aboard ISS. Back in the Navy Mark and Scott were known as the twin F-14 pilots.

Last week a committee from the National Academies on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations visited Johnson Space Center. Their recommendations will help decide the future size of the Astronaut Office and the aircraft that support them. From Peggy Whitson we heard that, as of this week, there are exactly 63 deployable astronauts. About 30 astronauts were "attrited" in the past year alone. Size of the Astronaut Office is determined by projected missions, how many crew will be needed to fill the various jobs, attrition and losses due to factors like health.

From Brent Jett we heard that NASA is figuring out how commercial spacecraft will fit in, as "Taxi" or "Rental car." Under the Taxi scenario, crews trained by private operators would fly spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts as passengers. This raises the problem of what those private crews would do while waiting around on ISS consuming air. The Taxi could remain moored to the Station up to 6 months. NASA would prefer a Rental Car option, where the privately built spacecraft would be flown by NASA crews. This is quite similar to the way things have always been done, private bidders building the spacecraft that NASA astronauts fly.

Richard Clark is in charge of aircraft operations at Ellington Field near JSC. He operates 4 Shuttle Training aircraft which will shortly be going away. The two Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft will go to Dryden, where their parts will likely contribute to the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The C-9 "Vomit Comet" is kept in reserve while priovate aircraft are used for reduced gravity training. 2 WB-57's are used for high-altitude research. A Gulfstream brings returning ISS crews from the landing site in Kazakhstan to JSC. The B-377 Super Guppy carries outsized cargoes. The astronauts are trained on a fleet of 21 T-38 Talons, a number which will be reduced to about 16.

Many decisions need to be made, from the future size of the astronaut office to the number of aircraft that will support them. NASA is in a state of transition without clear guidance from Washington, a very difficult situation. Children are still inspired by the achievements of a Space program. Their finest hour could be yet to come.



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