Air Force Space Command Public Affairs
Peterson AFB CO Only 12 human beings have set foot on the moon. You could be the thirteenth ... if you make the cut. NASA's current recruiting effort for a new class of astronaut candidates specifies that the International Space Station and the return to the moon are part of the agency's goals, and this class will be the first to be trained to achieve them.
This new focus is different according to Jeff Ashby, NASA liaison to U.S. Air Force Space Command. Mr. Ashby is also a former astronaut with three space flights under his belt.
"There were classes in the past that did the first space flights. Others did the first trips to the moon. My class built the International Space Station," he said. "This class will be the first one to go back to the moon for renewed exploration, and they will begin to build the permanent site, the lunar base."
Competition is stiff though.
"You have to ask yourself, who are the most important people to pick for these return missions to the moon," Mr. Ashby said. He believes medical doctors, engineers and those with a lot of aircraft test experience would be the most desirable candidates. "And anyone who has more than one of those, in my mind, is highly competitive," Mr. Ashby said.
NASA usually gets around 3 or 4,000 applicants for each new astronaut candidate class. Of these, the board interviews about 120. Once the interviews are complete NASA chooses between 10 and 20 people for the class.
The training lasts 18 months. At the end of the training, the fledgling astronauts are given a job at NASA in line with their skills. It could be robotics, design of the next space vehicles, or working on space medicine issues.
"At this point, they are doing astronaut training 25 percent of the time and working on their technical job for the other 75 percent," Mr. Ashby said.
Space flight does not immediately follow the training either. "The bad news for this class," Mr. Ashby said, "is that it is going to be seven to ten years before they get to fly in space. The good news is that when they do get to fly, it is either going to be a six-month mission to the International Space Station or it is going to be a two- or three-week mission to the moon. This is very significant," he added.
Why the moon? The simple answer is that it will allow humans to get to Mars. The long version is that human exploration of space and expansion off this planet could be a benefit to the species.
Michael D. Griffin, NASA administrator said in a December 2007 address to the Royal Astronomical Society that he agrees with Stephen Hawking and other distinguished scientists who have pointed out a basic truth: "The history of life on Earth is the history of extinction events, and human expansion into the solar system is, in the end, fundamentally about the survival of the species."
The U.S. Congress gave teeth to the concept of off planet movement in the 2005 Authorization Act for NASA. "The Administrator shall establish a program to develop a sustained human presence on the moon, including a robust precursor program, to promote exploration, science, commerce and United States preeminence in space, and as a stepping-stone to future exploration of Mars and other destinations."
These astronauts, continuing the tradition of the earliest space explorers, will lead the way for the proposed ultimate movement of humans to other planets as explorers and colonists. However, it is a stepping-stone process and those lessons learned on the ISS, and those to be learned from staying on a lunar base will provide the knowledge to get this nation to Mars.
Getting to the moon is not just an American initiative. According to Mr. Ashby, there are currently 16 nations involved in operating the ISS, a total of 11 languages spoken, and this will serve as the model for NASA's efforts to return people to the moon. Lessons learned from the cultural, political and technical aspects of running the ISS will roll over to the movement to the moon. In an independent effort, China is also engaged in a lunar exploration program that may include landing humans on the moon sometime after 2015.
The class of astronauts to be chosen may be able to fly to the moon more than once in their careers as astronauts. "I would guess that over a ten- to fifteen-year career, they will have one or two and maybe as many as three opportunities to fly in space," Mr. Ashby said.
At the end of a NASA career, the majority of military astronauts retire from their respective service. The one exception to this is the Air Force.
"Several notable astronauts have come back into service with the Air Force, and they provide great value when they come back," Mr. Ashby stated. Two notable returnees are Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander, U.S. Strategic Command and former AFSPC commander, and Brig. Gen. Susan J. Helms, commander, 45th Space Wing at Patrick AFB, Fla.
The Air Force has been in the space business since the beginning. According to a recent article in the journal of the Air Force Association, there have been more than 80 Air Force astronauts who have participated in the Mercury and succeeding Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, space shuttle, and International Space Station missions.
The space program has made amazing progress in the last 50 years, and the Air Force astronaut corps has played a key role in that evolution. In the beginning, Lt. Col. Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, one of the seven Mercury astronauts selected by NASA in April 1959, piloted the "Liberty Bell 7" spacecraft on a flight that lasted 15 minutes and 37 seconds. Today, General Helms has logged 5,064 hours in space flight. In the future, Air Force volunteers may have the opportunity to spend months at a time on orbit and possibly go back to the moon ... and beyond.