When the last space shuttle landed back on Earth in July, it appeared as though NASA’s manned space exploration may be grounded for good. Actually, 60 American astronauts are deep in training for future missions.
“We’re very much alive,” said Dr. Michael Barratt, 52, a physician and space medicine specialist who’s flown two missions and hopes to go up in space again.
Despite a retired space shuttle and recent downsizing affecting thousands of contractors and employees at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA is moving forward with an $18.7 billion budget and planning for a future that includes new ways to explore the universe.
The administration’s 2012 budget request for NASA calls for partnerships with the commercial space industry to create thousands of new jobs to provide transportation for cargo and astronauts flying to and from the Space Station. Four companies are currently working on developing vehicles and expect to begin testing next year.
“We’re very much alive.” – Michael Barratt
“The end of the space shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA or even sending humans into space,” said Administrator Charles Bowden outlining what’s next for the space agency. “NASA has a robust program of exploration, technology development and scientific research that will go on for years.
Even with budget cutbacks and austere times on the horizon, NASA’s committed to developing technologies for human exploration of the solar system, including solar electric propulsion, refueling depots in orbit, radiation protection and high-reliability life support systems. Spaceships that can break free of the Earth’s orbit, go to the Moon, an asteroid or even Mars are also in development.
“It’s a very exciting time for crew people to be here,” Barratt said. “You cannot imagine at some time we won’t be in a lot of places in the solar system. … A more permanent presence on the Moon would be a good place for us. We might find something alive on Mars, too.”
In addition to the 60 U.S. astronauts in training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, another 60 are from other partner countries, including Japan, Europe, Canada and Russia; up to 20 percent are women.
The regimen for all of these trainees includes five to six years of intense training on the ground. They learn how to work on the International Space Station that is manned by six people from the U.S. and its international space partners.
They have vehicular training, robotics, space walking, learning the life support system, navigation and many kinds of science, not to mention the requirement to speak Russian because Russia is one of the partners on the station.
They also travel to Japan, Germany, Canada and Star City, Russia for specialized training from the space station’s international partners.
The vast majority haves engineering degrees and most are pilots with experience in the military. Six are medical doctors. There’s a geologist and a veterinarian on board, too.
“We have quite a bit of diversity, and that makes us stronger,” said Barratt,a pilot and a diver who has logged 212 days in space. “The space program is a wonderful place for a guy like me. I get to use a broad range of skills.”
The astronauts-in-training arrive at the program with a professional degree and at least three years of professional work under their belt. Then it can take a long time to get assigned to a mission, said Barratt, who spent nine years in training before his first flight.
It was well worth the wait for Barratt, and he knows the same will be true for those following in his footsteps who one day will experience the thrill of space flight.
“When you get a chance to look at the window, the ground recedes in distance. Then the clouds recede in the distance. I’d go again tomorrow,” he said.