Ready for blastoff, astronauts bide time

Many will be looking for another mission when the shuttle program ends.

Published May 22, 2006

HOUSTON - Dressed in khaki pants, tasseled loafers and a blue NASA shirt, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper looked out a window from the space shuttle flight deck. The Earth spun above her, the giant boot of Italy drifting by.

There was only one problem with this spectacular view: It wasn't real. Stefanyshyn-Piper and three fellow astronauts were training at Johnson Space Center last Tuesday inside a simulator that sat very firmly on the ground.

For the past 10 years, that's where Stefanyshyn-Piper has been, too: on the ground or near it. She's an astronaut surrounded by other astronauts, but she has waited a decade for her first journey into space.

"We knew that when we got here, that it was going to be a while,'' Stefanyshyn-Piper said in an interview. But she added: "I don't think anyone expected 10 years.''

In spite of her decade on the ground, Stefanyshyn-Piper can be considered lucky. At least she has been assigned to a flight - her crew is currently second in the launch lineup - and hopes to blast off as early as August.

Others may not get the same chance. Though a shuttle made its slow crawl to the pad Friday to prepare for a July 1 liftoff, NASA has launched only one in the past three years and plans to end the shuttle program in 2010. NASA has 58 trained astronauts who have never flown into space.

Six people, including Stefanyshyn-Piper, have spent 10 years in the astronaut corps without blasting off, and 24 have waited eight years.

Clearly, a significant percentage of NASA's astronauts will have waited a decade before they experience their first 8.5-minute launch into space.

Some may never get there.

"Before we were selected, they actually called us and said, 'Hey, your class may never fly in space. Do you still want to come?' '' said Shane Kimbrough, who is among 11 people selected by NASA for its 2004 class of astronauts. "Every one of us that are in my class said 'absolutely.' ''

Some American astronauts will get into space via Russian spacecraft, en route to the international space station. Others may wait until after the space shuttle program ends, in hopes of launching aboard the yet-to-be developed crew exploration vehicle that will be designed to go to the moon or Mars.

The long waits present the space agency with a challenge. In classic "right stuff'' tradition, it has recruited dozens of utterly high-achieving people: pilots, doctors, scientists and military commanders who have generally risen to the top of every class they've been in.

Now it needs them to be patient.

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NASA this month announced that it plans to launch seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery as early as July 1.

That flight would only be NASA's second since the 2003 Columbia disaster, and it would mark yet another milestone in the agency's effort to resume more frequent shuttle missions and help complete the international space station.

At a news conference earlier this year at Cape Canaveral, one of the astronauts who will be on Discovery's next flight, Lisa Nowak, alluded to her long wait to fly in space. She noted that she and fellow crew member Stephanie Wilson had spent "about 10 years, as far as being in the astronaut corps, and we're ready to go.''

Those two, like Stefanyshyn-Piper, were in a large class of astronauts who came to NASA in 1996. Nowak is a Navy pilot with a master's in aeronautical engineering, and Wilson, 39, is a Harvard graduate and aerospace engineer.

Their crew also includes a first-timer who has been with NASA for eight years: Michael Fossum, 47, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve who has flown 34 different kinds of aircraft and has three master's degrees.

Stefanyshyn-Piper, 43, whose crew is training to blast off after Nowak and Wilson's flight, knows all about being ready to go.

She grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and always loved flying, even as a little girl making visits to family members in Germany. She attended college on a Navy scholarship and hoped to become a pilot.

But after getting two degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT, she didn't pass the exacting vision test for fighter pilots, so she headed in a different direction: underwater. She became a Navy diver, specializing in salvage and ship repair.

Later, while stationed in Hawaii with her husband, also a naval officer, she decided to apply to NASA. She knew astronauts sometimes trained underwater in spacesuits. With NASA preparing to help build the international space station, she thought her own underwater construction experience might make her a good candidate.

Like other astronauts, she spent 18 months in what could be called NASA boot camp, training on shuttle and space station systems and learning to fly T-38 jets, a training aircraft.

On Feb. 7, 2002, her birthday, she learned she had been chosen to fly on a specific shuttle mission called STS-115. She understood that training would take more than a year, but that was fine. Now she had a definite spot in line - the crew was scheduled to fly in 2003.

Then in February 2003 the shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. It killed all seven astronauts, including three from Stefanyshyn-Piper's class. Two years passed as investigators determined the cause - a 1.6-pound of foam that damaged a wing during launch - and NASA devised ways to make sure the problem wouldn't happen again.

But when Discovery launched last summer, the foam fell again, causing another round of study and another yearlong wait. This three-year period with just one flight is one of the reasons so many astronauts have waited so long to fly.

Now, NASA ambitiously hopes to resume its launch schedule, making as many as 18 flights by 2010, enough to finish construction of the international space station.

Stefanyshyn-Piper is in roughly the same position as she was at the time of the Columbia accident - potentially three months away from making her first flight.

When her day finally comes, and the shuttle Atlantis is ready to launch from Cape Canaveral, she will be strapped into her seat on the mid deck, waiting for the final hour or so to pass. She imagines that "that's when you kind of start second-guessing: Okay, yes, I'm ready. Well, am I really ready?''

But overall, she said, "I'm going to be very, very excited. The time has finally come.''

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Waiting for a decade sounds excruciating, but NASA says that's not exactly what astronauts do. They work. In addition to their training, most take on temporary duties related to space flight.

"We have a bunch of (astronauts) right now doing really cool stuff on just the initial steps to design a new program to go back to the moon,'' said NASA spokesman Doug Peterson.

Bernadette Hajek, technical assistant to the chief of the astronaut office, said two of the most coveted astronaut jobs are "Capcom'' and "Cape crusader.''

The Capcom, short for "capsule communicator,'' stands in mission control and becomes an earthbound liaison with astronauts in orbit. A "Cape crusader,'' or C-squared, comes to Cape Canaveral to prepare astronauts for flight, even strapping them to their seats while the shuttle waits on the launch pad.

"They're not just sitting on a bunk somewhere waiting to fly,'' agreed Thomas Oltmanns, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, who is a member of NASA's Astronaut Selection Psychiatric Standards Working Group.

Oltmanns believes some of these jobs can help keep astronauts motivated, although it's also clear that flying in space provides "the highest status within the group, and it's what they all want to do.''

Astronauts also enjoy "the ultimate astronaut perk, flying the NASA T-38 jets,'' former space shuttle mission specialist Mike Mullane said in a recent book. The jets are supposed to help the astronauts learn to react and think quickly in mid flight, as they may have to in space.

Kimbrough, 38, the astronaut selected in 2004, has dreamed about the reward of space flight for a long time.

He used to spend summers with his grandparents in Titusville and watched many rockets launch from nearby Cape Canaveral. "I was, I think, 2 when Apollo 11 launched to the moon and I was there, supposedly.''

Kimbrough went to West Point, where he was captain of the baseball team and earned a degree in aerospace engineering. He served in Operation Desert Storm and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He visits the Tampa Bay area when he can to see his father, who lives in Pasco County.

Kimbrough said he's happy to be an astronaut, even though his group of 11 could be in an iffy situation.

"Our class could potentially not fly shuttle because the shuttle is going to retire here in a few years,'' he said. He said his group may get the chance to fly in the planned but not-yet-built crew exploration vehicle, "but if things get delayed like they sometimes do in the government and with huge programs, you know, we could maybe be too old to even do that ... there's potential there where we don't get to fly anything.''

He stressed that he dearly wants to get into space, but said he understands the reality that he may not.

"But if we don't get to, we're going to be supporting our buddies that are going up, so that I think is enough reward.''

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Frank Caldeiro is another astronaut who still hopes to fly in space, but has grown to understand there is a chance that he may not. Like Stefanyshyn-Piper, he was accepted into the astronaut corps a decade ago, in the class of 1996.

Unlike her, he has not received a flight assignment. And he sometimes wonders if he will.

Caldeiro, 47, is currently considered a "management'' astronaut, meaning he is on a special assignment during which he will not be given a flight. However, this could change and he could later be put back on "active'' status.

NASA has 142 astronauts, 40 of them on management status. That leaves 102 who are considered active and therefore in the lineup for potential space flight assignments. Of the 58 NASA astronauts who have never flown, 55 are active and three are management.

Caldeiro, like other astronauts, said he feels fortunate to have been chosen. He has loved all the jobs NASA has given him.

A flying buff who once built his own airplane and still flies it, sometimes with his 9-year-old daughter as a passenger, he is enthusiastic about the job he does now: coordinating scientific experiments from Harvard and other universities to fly aboard a high-altitude jet called the WB-57.

But after 10 years without a space flight assignment, he acknowledges he has experienced some disappointment as well.

"One day you can feel on top of the world, the next day you can feel lower than dirt ... but you look at the bright side of everything.''

A former propulsion expert who worked at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he was accepted into the astronaut corps in 1996, the same year as Stefanyshyn-Piper.

Caldeiro was born in Argentina and came to New York City with his father at age 15. Although he did not know English, he learned to speak the language flawlessly and is an American citizen.

He loved living in Florida, and sometimes flew in his homemade airplane from Merritt Island to Marathon just to go snorkeling for the day. But he moved to Houston to pursue the dream of space flight.

Now he and his wife have two daughters who are 6 and 9, both born in Texas. He has put down some roots.

"So flying in space, to me, has become more like, well, you know, you can't chase something so much that you run it over. You can be obsessed by it and be miserable or you can say, 'Well, this is an opportunity; I'm first in line in front of 350-million other people.' "

Would he consider leaving NASA for another job?

He smiles good-naturedly and answers;

"How many people in this world need somebody who is just trained to fly the shuttle? I have a multimillion-dollar skill that nobody else needs.''