Skip to comments.NASA Has Too Many Astronauts for Flights
Posted on 07/11/2003 11:46:51 AM PDT by anymouse
NASA has too many astronauts waiting around for their chance to fly in space and needs to do a better job of matching the size of the corps to the number of missions, the agency's inspector general said Thursday.
In a report that should have been released in February but was delayed because of the Columbia disaster, the inspector general's office concluded the space agency was "overly optimistic" in predicting future shuttle flight rates and hired too many astronauts in recent years.
The report said that because of an engineer shortage at Johnson Space Center in Houston, high-priced astronauts have been used to fill engineering positions. That practice may have been used, in turn, to justify the large size of the astronaut corps.
"We found that some astronauts worked in technical assignments that did not require astronauts and could have been performed by less expensive engineers," the report said.
NASA has 144 astronauts on its payroll, about a third of whom have yet to fly into space. With the remaining three shuttles grounded in the wake of the Columbia accident, the rookies will have to wait much, much longer for a rocket ride.
The inspector general's office did not call for any astronaut layoffs, suggesting only that NASA hire more judiciously.
NASA's top spaceflight official has already concurred with the recommendations, and the space agency has agreed to better manage the size of its astronaut corps and establish formal criteria for giving technical assignments to astronauts.
The inspector general's office said that Johnson Space Center could not determine the full cost of its astronaut corps in 2002, but noted: "Astronauts clearly cost more than other civil servants" because of their extensive training.
A Johnson spokeswoman said Thursday she was unable to provide a cost estimate.
Even before Columbia shattered over Texas during re-entry Feb. 1 and seven were killed, NASA's astronaut selection office had planned for the class of 2004 to be one of the smallest in shuttle history. Only about 12 new astronauts will be selected at the beginning of next year out of the thousands of applicants, and they probably will not fly until 2009, said Duane Ross, who is in charge of the office.
Ross said when the 1996 and 1998 astronaut classes were being filled, with 35 and 25 people respectively, NASA was projecting seven or eight shuttle flights a year and anticipated a full crew of six or seven aboard the international space station (news - web sites). As it turns out, shuttles flew just five or so times a year and the station has yet to house more than three astronauts at a time.
The space station crew has shrunk to two, in fact, because of the indefinite grounding of the shuttle fleet and the hold on U.S. deliveries.
NASA's most recent astronaut class, in 2000, had 17 members. No new astronauts were chosen in 2001, 2002 or 2003, and it is possible the 2004 class may be canceled, Ross said.
If it stays on track, the next class will include a few schoolteachers. NASA's only other in-flight disaster the 1986 Challenger accident had a schoolteacher on board, Christa McAuliffe.
The inspector general's office said that in light of the Columbia tragedy, the release of the report was put off "until a more appropriate time."
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