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All Hail the Chief: Behnken Assumes Astronaut Office's Top Job

Wearing blue shirts, Peggy Whitson and Robert Behnken – NASA’s outgoing and incoming Chief Astronauts – are pictured together aboard the International Space Station in March 2008. Photo Credit: NASA

Veteran Shuttle astronaut Robert Behnken has succeeded Peggy Whitson as Chief of the Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. According to NASA’s astronaut biographies home page, Whitson’s tenure ended in July, almost three years after she took the helm of the office from its previous incumbent, Steve Lindsey. In his new post, Behnken – an Air Force lieutenant-colonel, with a doctorate in mechanical engineering – will oversee the day-to-day operations of the office as it moves from the post-Shuttle era and embarks on an exciting new chapter in space exploration: one that is expected to feature the inaugural flights of Commercial Crew vehicles and the first piloted voyages beyond Earth orbit in almost five decades.

The departure of Whitson has generated some surprise, particularly as she intended to oversee the selection of the 2013 class of astronaut candidates and had already revealed that she expected to assign the first astronauts to Commercial Crew Program groups later this year. Michael Cassutt, who co-authored Deke Slayton’s autobiography, Deke, and sat on a 2011 National Academy of Sciences panel to chart the future course of the Astronaut Office, speculated that Whitson has expressed a desire to return to active training for a future International Space Station (ISS) expedition.

Since October 2009, Whitson – a veteran of two previous long-duration ISS missions, which made her the world’s most experienced female space traveller, the world’s most experienced female spacewalker and the first female space station commander – has guided the Astronaut Office through one of its most difficult transitional periods in recent history. “It was harsh by Astronaut Office standards,” Cassutt explained. “Whitson downsized the office from 110 to half that in the space of a year or so.”

Inside the International Space Station’s Cupola, Behnken enjoys the remarkable view of Earth during STS-130. His view as Chief Astronaut will encompass the near-term future of NASA’s 52-strong corps, some of whom may undertake humanity’s first voyages beyond Earth orbit in five decades. Photo Credit: NASA

Through natural attrition or the deliberate movement of flight-experienced astronauts into non-flying management posts, the corps shrunk to only 52 members currently listed on ‘active’ status. These personnel moves have been triggered by a variety of factors, including medical eligibility to fly, suitability to fit the requirements of the Soyuz spacecraft and willingness to undertake the gruelling, 2.5-year training programme required for a long-duration ISS tour.

In January 2011, for example, veteran astronaut Jose Hernandez resigned from the corps after turning down the opportunity to train for a future station expedition. Many others shared his concern about the negative impact on their families. Still others have revealed their intent to remain eligible for such lengthy missions. Tony Antonelli began dedicated Russian tuition in early 2011 and Rick Sturckow – who was until last August the Deputy Chief of the office – is presently working on both language instruction and EVA training, preparatory for a possible ISS assignment.

The Astronaut Office has changed markedly in the last 12 months. Ever since the legendary Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton first took the role – initially titled ‘Co-ordinator of Astronaut Activities’ – in the late summer of 1962, it was, until Whitson, the exclusive preserve of military pilots. America’s first man in space, Al Shepard, is the only person to have held the post twice: from 1963-69 and after a break to train for Apollo 14 again in 1971-74. Tom Stafford took the top job whilst Shepard trained for his second mission and John Young is the longest incumbent, with a tenure from 1974-87. He served as chief through the post-Apollo era and the early Shuttle years until after the loss of Challenger. Dan Brandenstein was next, from 1987-92, followed by Robert ‘Hoot’ Gibson in 1992-94, Bob Cabana in 1994-97, Ken Cockrell in 1997-98, Charlie Precourt in 1998-2002, Kent Rominger in 2002-2006 and Steve Lindsey from 2006-2009.

Husband-and-wife astronaut duo Robert Behnken and Megan McArthur – the latter of whom flew aboard the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission – are pictured at the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement (RNASA) Foundation celebratory gala in Houston, Texas, in April 2012. Photo Credit: NASA

Whitson’s appointment to replace Lindsey marked the first occasion on which a non-military scientist-astronaut had ever assumed the post. At the time, this was taken as an indicator of the leading role of science and ISS utilisation on the corps in the post-Shuttle era; an indicator which appears to be continued by the appointment of Behnken, who is described as “well-liked” in the Astronaut Office and a good mix of aviator and academic.

In the wake of the STS-135 mission, Whitson reorganised the Astronaut Office to include two Deputy Chief positions. One of these was taken by Eric Boe, with long-range development responsibilities focusing on Exploration, Commercial Crew and Safety, whilst the other went to Mike Barratt, with an emphasis on Station Operations, EVA, Robotics and Medical Issues. However, in January 2012 Barratt was reassigned to manage JSC’s Human Research Program and his Deputy Chief post was taken by Behnken.

Photographed aboard Endeavour’s flight deck during the STS-130 mission, Robert Behnken (right) and Terry Virts had applied together to become astronauts and were selected together in July 2000. Ten years later, they flew into space together. Photo Credit: NASA

The son of a construction worker from St. Ann, Missouri, Behnken earned his PhD from California Institute of Technology in 1997, having worked on algorithms for flexible robotic manipulators, and training as a Reserve Officers Training Corps student brought him into the Air Force as a flight test engineer. He was selected to attend Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Whilst there, he met another student, Terry Virts, and the two men completed their NASA astronaut application forms together. After graduation, Behnken worked on the F-22 Raptor. He and Virts entered the astronaut corps in July 2000. In September 2006, he participated in one of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) undersea training expeditions and in January 2007 was assigned as a Mission Specialist for STS-123.

During his first flight in March 2008, Behnken participated in three EVAs to install and outfit the Japanese Logistics Pressurised Module (JLP) and Canada’s Dextre Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator. Later that year, he trained extensively for the STS-400 contingency mission in support of the Hubble servicing flight – a flight whose crew included his spouse, astronaut Megan McArthur – and in December 2008 was assigned as a Mission Specialist on STS-130. This ambitious flight took place in February 2010 and featured the installation of the Tranquillity Node and the Cupola onto the station. In completing his second mission, Behnken’s current space time tally stands at 708 hours off the planet, including more than 37 hours of EVAs.

“He’s undeniably smart,” said Cassutt, “and very likely – given that Whitson appointed him as Deputy – to continue her policies re training and assignment.” Others who flew in space with Behnken have offered similarly glowing praise. George Zamka, who commanded STS-130, described him as a “very smart and gifted individual and a great communicator”, who could be trusted “to do everything with spacewalks, including working with other organisations and making training decisions”. Meanwhile, Behnken’s STS-123 crewmate Greg H. Johnson gave him the nickname ‘E.F. Hutton’ – after the American financier – because “when he speaks, everybody listens”.

In his new position at the helm of the world’s greatest flying fraternity, Behnken has the assurance of everyone’s attention. He will now be responsible for next year’s scheduled selection and training of a new class of astronaut candidates and the first assignments to the Commercial Crew Program. Asked by an interviewer a few years ago about the advice he would give to potential astronaut applications, Behnken was philosophical. “One of the things that I’ve told all of them,” he said, “is that you really have to do things that you like to do. If you want to do all the things that you think might get you selected by NASA to be an astronaut, but when you do them you don’t like them, that’s going to be unfortunate. You should do things that you like and that are really interesting to you and that will probably make you do a better job at doing them.”

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