CAPE CANVERAL – When we think of NASA, the first thing that most Americans picture is the men and women of the astronaut corps. It turns out that the White House has been thinking about them as well – as something that needs to be cut. The Obama administration has requested a 10-month long study be held to determine the appropriate ‘size’ of NASA’s astronaut corps.
At the end of 2009, NASA had a program to replace the shuttle underway (if over budget). It was assumed that many of the astronauts would ride out the lean years between the shuttle program until the new Constellation Program was started. Then in February of 2010 (and on the seventh anniversary of the Columbia disaster) the White House revealed that it would not support NASA’s lunar ambitions and instead it would scrap Constellation.
After much hand wringing and political wrangling back and forth a compromise was reached – that still left NASA without the ability to launch astronauts for some time. Proposals have recently been unveiled that could lessen this gap, but the fact remains that 64 astronauts is a bit much when it is considered that none will be flying.
There are only two (and a potential third) shuttle flights remaining on the current manifest. Even if the flights on the Russian Soyuz are figured in – most of these astronauts won’t have a viable mission. Under the current plan, NASA will be unable to send astronauts to the International Space Station for about six years (between 2011 and 2017).
The proposal to cut NASA’s astronaut corps comes on the heels of numerous successive cuts that the space agency has endured over the past year. Many view the loss of the corps as one more blow to both spaceflight experience as well as national prestige.
“Since he got in office Obama has been dismantling NASA step by step,” said a long-time NASA employee who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “He put Bolden and Garver in charge and they’ve worked day and night to see everything that NASA does is either torn apart or turned into something that furthers their agenda.”
The White House hopes that commercial space companies such as SpaceX, which is slated to launch the second of its Falcon 9 rockets on Dec. 7 will emerge to fill the void created by NASA’s absence. However, to date, none of these firms have launched an astronaut into orbit.
There has never been more than 150 astronauts at any given time (the most ever was 149 back in 2000). Although most Americans assume that NASA has a massive budget, for what the agency does and provides, it is incredibly small, about one-seventh of a penny out of every tax dollar helps to pay for the ISS, the shuttle program, the probes and rovers to the planets and the astronaut’s salaries. The agency’s budget is currently $18.7 billion a year. The 47 civilian astronauts earn between $65,000 and $100,000 annually, with the remaining military astronauts being paid through the Department of Defense (DoD) which NASA reimburses.
The National Academies is the organization that will conduct the review of the astronaut corps and they are leaving no stone unturned, even the T-38 ‘Talon’ jets that the astronauts fly in, are coming under scrutiny. These jets are not state-of-the-art fighters, but rather training aircraft that date back to the beginning of the space age. These planes, equipment and facilities used to train astronauts and the current number of astronauts will all be reviewed.
“You know, if Obama really wanted to cut waste at NASA – he’d start with headquarters,” said the NASA employee. “That place is stocked with GS-15s – who really don’t do much of anything!” He said referring to the government pay grade of many of the high-level officials that work at NASA’s headquarters in Washington D.C.Missions » ISS »