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Astronaut Oversupply

I've made the point numerous times that we don't have any shortage of astronauts, and that their loss in accidents like last February's shouldn't be the primary focus of our concern in formulating national space policy.

And actually, it's old news, but the press is now starting to pay attention, because it's gotten dramatically worse. That is, the problem of NASA having too many astronauts. NASA has always had more astronauts than it needed, and as the article points out, many of them end up being engineers on the Shuttle program.

What the article doesn't point out is that one of the reasons for the oversupply was that when George Abbey ran Johnson Space Center with an iron fist, he used many of the astronaut corps as a spy network to know who was and wasn't loyal, and rewarded or punished them by allowing them to fly, or not. If he'd had a shortage, he wouldn't have had that kind of leverage over them.

Unfortunately, even though the Abbey regime supposedly ended when Bush came in, many in Houston still live in fear of his return, until they actually see his dead body.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 11, 2003 12:04 PM
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Yeo, sort of like Saddam.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at July 11, 2003 01:21 PM

Loyal to him or loyal to NASA? Or did he bother to make the distinction?

I've always found that part of the NASA Uber Alles crowd to be very troublesome, thinking that, gosh, it is all sweetness and light down there at JSC, when it's a bear-knuckled bureaucracy like anything else.

Posted by Andrew at July 11, 2003 01:44 PM

Can't we all be astronauts? If space transportation heads in the direction we'd all like it to then ideally we could all be astronauts.

Posted by Hefty at July 11, 2003 01:45 PM

So, we (the US) loose 17 people in a span of 35 years and Manned Spaceflight might not be worth the risk but we loose over 90 people in a fire at a rock concert at nearly the same time as the Columbia Accident and no one is questioning the value of manned rock concerts?

Only Robots should be allowed to Rock!!!

Posted by Mike Puckett at July 11, 2003 08:01 PM

...and a bad rock concert at that.

Great White? Ugh.

Posted by Andrew at July 11, 2003 10:37 PM

The problem here is the "RIGHT STUFF". The federales originally wanted pilots with college degrees to be astronauts, which eliminated almost all the pilots who won WWII. MORONIC!! Now, 40 odd years later, almost all of the astronaut candidates have a Masters or two or a Doctorate. As a technically trained person I have met many people who have pilots licenses or people who are highly qualified lab personnell who would LOVE to go into space. (Like me they grew up on the pre moon walk space race and are avid fans.) When you raise the bar this high, you get too much opportunity for empire building and back stabbing. Abbey narrowed the pipeline of who goes and who doesn't through intimidation and abuse of power. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely!

To sum up all my meandering, a few years ago there was a lab experiment created by junior high students on the space shuttle. Something with earth worms or tree frogs as I recall. If an experiment can be created by 7th graders and it can then win the contest of experiments from all the submitted 7th grade experiments in the country, common sense should tell us, that said experiment DOES NOT need a Zoologist with two Doctoral Degrees to run said experiment.

Private companies need to push NASA out of business, and soon. My one true hope is that someone will decide that 50 year old, fat guys are the perfect cadidates for the first mission to Mars. I'd leave tomorrow, I need today to pack!

Posted by Steve at July 12, 2003 10:35 AM

Hear hear! If they would just send us somewhat overweight guys, they woudn't need to pack as much food, 'cause we have plenty stored in reserve. Also, us older guys have slower metabolisms and don't need as much food to begin with (unless you're a compulsive weight lifter like me -- oh, wait that leaves me out!)

Well, never mind, then....

Posted by Mark at July 12, 2003 11:19 AM

I suspect part of Abbey's power was also that he held the carrot of astronaut candidacy out to keep his workforce highly motivated; most of the younger NASA engineers I've known (at JSC, at least) will admit their desire to be an astronaut, especially after a few beers. And I've seen a few of them work pretty damned hard to improve their chances of being selected, not least by working harder and longer than anyone else on their projects.

What they'd never talk about was how they really felt about ol' George, though -- but their eyes would give them away...

Posted by Troy at July 13, 2003 09:57 AM

In general, the argument that losing seven people in such a complex endeavor as space flight is an acceptable risk (all considered) is certainly true. As you say, there are more underlying problems here including the fact that the nation’s entire manned space program is so strapped and under realized that the loss of a key vehicles can actually be said to be more important than those who lost their lives.

Directly speaking, the loss of the seven astronauts shows just how Show-String this whole endeavor has become. Not having a space suite on board? Not telling astronauts of past problems - regardless of how minor? To not have some sort of back out plans to say rendezvous with the station in the event of a problem or have some sort of standby emergency vehicle (shuttle/ OSP) ready to orbit in the event of a problem? It all just shows a greater underlying problem: an inability to accurately define what is needed and then to execute the plan.

Like buying a Ferrari and refusing to put air in the tires because it cost 25 cents at the pump, NASA/The Gov. skimps when it comes to ‘the-cost-of-doing-business.’ Think of Apollo 18 - a ready-to-go moon rocket that was never launched because they basically refused to put gas in the tank. Think of Casini. Here we are going out to such a wondrous world with a 3.4 billion dollar mission and we refused to allow the ‘camera platform’ to rotate? Instead, the whole spacecraft has to rotate every time it wants to relay something back (when it could save fuel and perform more science otherwise) - can you see how awkward this is? What about canceling the inflatable space station habitation module just because it ‘may’ have been used for future mars missions? The list of such criminal (for lack of a better term) oversights and mismanagement gets rather long. Look at how many times things are redesigned because of all the cuts going on or cancelled altogether ‘after’ millions have already been spent. It is a bureaucratic machine at its best - but it isn’t just all NASA’s fault.

I know NASA isn’t the best, but wouldn’t their job be easier if they were just given a blank 15 billion dollar check everyyear and allowed to spend it (or save it) as they see fit instead of having to go through such 'hack and slash' subcommittee hearings? I do think their policies would be much more consistent! The space station was more of a statedepartment program intended to boost international cooperation than it was something NASA generated on its own. There ideal, more cost effective pre-shuttle designs would have been better than the current STS that was the only design able to 'fly' past congress too!

Posted by at July 14, 2003 10:22 AM

I know NASA isn?t the best, but wouldn?t their job be easier if they were just given a blank 15 billion dollar check everyyear and allowed to spend it (or save it) as they see fit instead of having to go through such 'hack and slash' subcommittee hearings?

Of course their job would be easier, but we wouldn't get any better results--just different ones.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 14, 2003 10:30 AM

Even though it is now defunct - what is your take on the Soviet model of a manned space program? In thinking about it, I think it was much more structured and versatile and a good model of structured analytical design. For example, Instead of trying to pack everything into a shuttle (for the longest time) they used (and still do) a simple Soyuz space craft and a space station. Do you see the difference? They identified two requirements to our one: a manned vehicle solely to transit a crew and an actual small but versatile space station. This contrasts the use of the shuttle as a temporary space station: ‘orbital module’ or the occasional ‘Space Hab’ in the cargo bay. By breaking the same requirements down and using two designs to achieve them they got a better overall system - No new technology - just different methodology! Well, what about payload delivery you might ask? For this they had the proton! So they actually had broken the requirements out into three specific designs. The Proton if you ask me is pretty darn nice - no need for a crew either - obviously!

Then we have their example of a shuttle. They may seem the same, but in fact, their version was much more versatile. The Energiia could fly alone - without the shuttle, for example! Its payload carrying capacity is the heart of many Mars initiatives and look at home quick just a few of them could have launched the whole space station… Right? Their shuttle also had benefits such as auto-pilot: not by any means something we can not do but something they chose to do for the reasons we are now seeing. (Question: was the Energiia strap-ons reusable? I think so but wanted to check). Their proposed fly-back Energiia - called the Buran-T - was what I feel is the ideal Space Transport.

Not sure what your take on this is. I hope you at least see what I mean by the fundamental difference analytical design can make by breaking things out - or combining them if that’s the thing to do…


Posted by Chris Eldridge at July 14, 2003 12:52 PM

IIRC the Zenit is essentially the Enegria strap-on booster and it was supposed to be reuasable with air bags and parachute recovery.

Posted by Mike Puckett at July 14, 2003 01:16 PM

My take on the Soviet space program is that...socialist space programs are socialist space programs.

It might be a modest improvement over our socialist space program, but it's certainly not something to emulate if we want true accomplishment.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 14, 2003 04:06 PM

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