Monday, September 24, 2007

NASA - Need Another Set (of) Astronauts?

"HOUSTON - NASA is accepting applications for the 2009 Astronaut Candidate Class. Those selected could fly to space for long-duration stays on the International Space Station and missions to the moon. " So opens a recent NASA press release. It also points to a serious problem that NASA just won't face up to. It already has too many astronauts.

With over a 100 astronauts in the corps today, one has to wonder if this is the right time to begin selecting even more. With only a few handfuls of flights left before the space shuttle is retired, and a good seven years, in the best case scenario, before its replacement is fielded, why does NASA need to carry so many "unemployed" flyboys and flygirls on its payroll? What is the value added? At what cost?

Astronauts require a lot of care and feeding to keep them in tip-top form. They fly T-38 jets. They develop their spacely skills in expensive simulators and water tanks simulating weightlessness. They require teams of handlers to shepherd them through their training. They put on their blue suits and talk to school kids and Congressfolk. Then they fly in space a couple of times, sometimes with flights coming years apart, and then walk away taking all of that expensive training with them.

Ok, ok. We hear you saying, "Give them a break." They are taking significant risks strapping themselves to millions of pounds of thrust every time they take a ride. They deserve this kind of treatment and should be able to quit whenever they want to.

Maybe so. But maybe we are also doing them a disservice by keeping so many of them around. After all, astronauts represent a very competitive part of our society. They hate to lose. Witness the recent headlines involving a spurned lover and diapers. By making so many astronauts competing for so few seats, maybe, just maybe, we are stressing these superhumans beyond their limits.

Is it also possible that the size of our astronaut corps has indirectly had a negative effect on the Emperor's exploration architecture? The Russians maintain a smaller corps of mostly veteran flyers, honing their skills with each successive flight. The Russians are much more spontaneous and much less paranoid about unscripted space flight operations in general. Could it be that by depriving our astronauts of more firsthand experiences we are, in fact, depriving ourselves of the most cost effective means of flying in space? Quite possibly.

You see the Emperor has been "living large." He favors scale over frequency in the new architecture. His astronaut advisors have told him they are uncomfortable doing so many EVAs to assemble the space station. They want fewer pieces to put together to take a trip to the moon. Those fewer pieces must therefore be bigger and require a big rocket like the ARES-V to loft them. Fewer pieces means fewer operations. Fewer operations means less experience in general. Less experience means it takes longer to achieve a given level of confidence in reliability. And we all know about the economics of building very few, one-of-a-kind, complex pieces of equipment.

Have you figured it out yet? Then take the leap with us.

Because we have too many astronauts NASA has come to favor scale over frequency. And by continuing to add to that group now, we are compromising our space faring future.

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