In what is becoming an all-too-familiar trend, another highly-experienced astronaut has left NASA. Michael Lopez-Alegria, who holds the U.S. record for the longest stay on orbit, has opted to leave NASA to become president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Lopez-Allegria’s departure comes less than two months after veteran astronauts Shannon Lucid and Jerry Ross left the space agency.
Lopez-Alegria flew three times into space via the space shuttle and once on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. His shuttle missions STS-73, STS-92 and STS-113 flew in 1995, 2000 and 2002 respectively. His final flight, aboard the Soyuz, took place in 2006. It is time on-orbit that has become Lopez-Alegria’s claim-to-fame.
During his tenure with NASA, Lopez-Alegria logged more than 257 days in space, including 215 days as commander of Expedition 14 to the International Space Station (ISS). This currently stands as the longest spaceflight by a U.S. astronaut. Lopez-Alegria also conducted 10 extra-vehicular activities or “spacewalks” as they are more commonly known during his time with NASA. All total he spent more than 67 hours outside of the spacecraft. Only Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev has spent more time on EVA than Lopez-Alegria.
He has served in a variety of roles with NASA. For a time Lopez-Alegria worked as the director of operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. While there he supervised U.S. astronauts training for flights to the ISS. Most recently he was the assistant director for the ISS at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
“Mike has been a huge asset to the astronaut office during the course of his career,” said Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office at Johnson. “His contributions in spacewalking, shuttle, space station and Soyuz operations are notable and very distinguished. Personally, we will miss his humor and insights and wish him all the best.”
Lopez-Alegria is just one of numerous experienced astronauts that have departed NASA since the end of the shuttle era. This exodus has raised concerns that the agency is experiencing a “brain-drain” of talented professionals.
NASA has been directed to aid commercial efforts to provide access to low-Earth-orbit or LEO. In the interim, NASA completely lacks the ability to launch astronauts on its own and has been forced to rely on one of the partners on the ISS project, Russia, for access to the space station who charges $63 million per seat on the Soyuz spacecraft.
“Mike has faithfully served the Flight Crew Operations Directorate for many years,” said Janet Kavandi, director of Flight Crew Operations at Johnson. “His unique background and diplomatic skills have made him an outstanding FCOD assistant director for space station and lead for the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel. Mike’s tireless dedication to the safety and well-being of space station crews is well known. We will miss him and wish him well in his future endeavors.”