In May 2010, the National Research Council (NRC) was asked by NASA to address several questions related to the Astronaut Corps. The NRC’s Committee on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations was tasked to answer several questions:
1. How should the role and size of the activities managed by the Johnson Space Center Flight Crew Operations Directorate change after space shuttle retirement and completion of the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS)?
2. What are the requirements for crew-related ground-based facilities after the Space Shuttle program ends?
3. Is the fleet of aircraft used for training the Astronaut Corps a cost-effective means of preparing astronauts to meet the requirements of NASA’s human spaceflight program? Are there more cost-effective means of meeting these training requirements?
Although the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program has garnered considerable discussion in recent years and there is considerable uncertainty about what the program will involve in the coming years, the committee was not tasked to address whether human spaceflight should continue or what form it should take. The committee’s task restricted it to studying activities managed by the Flight Crew Operations Directorate or those closely related to its activities, such as crew-related ground-based facilities and the training aircraft.
To conduct this study, the committee visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) and sought information from the center’s Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD), which is responsible for selecting and training astronauts for future missions, and from the Mission Operations Directorate (MOD), which is responsible for facilities and mission-specific training for flight and ground crews. The committee did not address ground-based human spaceflight facilities or activities that did not directly support ground-based training, such as astronaut exercises and the flight surgeon’s office.
The committee was briefed by a former astronaut who held senior management positions in NASA and by NASA Headquarters officials who had responsibility for human spaceflight, including the associate administrator for safety and mission assurance, who explained the role of crew training in NASA’s overall approach to safety
and mission assurance. In addition, the committee sought input from potential providers of future commercially procured human spacecraft, such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp., and from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is responsible for licensing commercial launch vehicles in the United States and is expected to play a role in licensing future commercial human spacecraft. And it received briefings on training practices of the Naval Reactors Program and the commercial airline industry.
The committee received substantial cooperation and assistance from the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, including the chief of the Astronaut Office and members of her staff. The committee assessed the information provided to it by FCOD in presentations and the planning tools used by FCOD and the Astronaut Office. That cooperation made it possible for the committee to explore all aspects of its task. Taking into consideration questions posed by the committee during its meetings and questions submitted directly to the Astronaut Office, in March 2011 the Astronaut Office produced a white paper containing substantial amounts of information directly relevant to the committee’s task.1 Throughout this report, the committee uses graphics provided by NASA in that white paper, which is referred to in the report as “NASA Astronaut Office 2011 White Paper.”
SUMMARY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Question 1—Role and Size of the Flight Crew Operations Activities
NASA’s Astronaut Office, which is part of FCOD at JSC, is responsible for managing NASA’s Astronaut Corps, which the committee defines as the set of astronauts qualified to fly into space, excluding astronauts who have transitioned to management positions in the agency and are no longer eligible to fly space missions. The Astronaut Corps has been reduced substantially since it reached a peak of nearly 150 in 2000. In May 2011, the Astronaut Corps consisted of 61 persons, and NASA has projected a minimum required Astronaut Corps of 55-60 astronauts through 2016. In 2009, the agency selected a new class of nine astronaut candidates for addition to the Astronaut Corps in 2011. It is expected that the new class will compensate for any attrition and help to ensure long-term sustainment of a skilled U.S. Astronaut Corps.
Although NASA’s human spaceflight program and its post-shuttle crew requirements have not been well defined except in terms of the ISS, the committee concluded that the sizing of the Astronaut Corps to meet ISS crew requirements has been well modeled by using as input ISS crew selection, training and flight recovery times, and a post-shuttle force reduction plan. NASA uses a model to predict the minimum staffing requirements and then applies an arbitrary management margin to the result (Figure S.1).
According to a presentation by the chief of the Astronaut Office to the committee during its first meeting, the model produces a theoretical minimum and does not include several real-world constraints, such as mission-required skills mix, temporary or permanent medical disqualification, inability of astronauts returning from a long-duration mission to fly another long-duration mission at the end of the normal 1.5-year recovery period, and the desired pairing of inexperienced and experienced astronauts on new assignments. In light of those unpredictable constraints, a 25 percent margin, as shown in Figure S.1, is factored into the model used to determine the size of the Astronaut Corps that will meet the minimum manifest requirement.
The committee notes that in addition to substantially reducing the size of the Astronaut Corps recently, NASA has reduced the management margin that it applies to its model. The margin, which was 50 percent, was reduced in 2010 to 25 percent, apparently because of budget pressures. According to the chief of the Astronaut Office, “The corps requirements will always be greater than the manifest analysis, and 25 percent may not be enough margin.”2
The committee notes that new sources of uncertainty have been identified in the human spaceflight program. For example, a relatively new medical condition has been observed among astronauts returning from long-duration space missions: papilledema, a swelling of the optic disk. The condition has led to several Astronaut Corps mem-
1 NASA Astronaut Office, “Ensuring the Readiness of the Astronaut Corps: A White Paper,” NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Tex., March 25, 2011.
2 P.A. Whitson, Astronaut Office, “Presentation to the NRC Committee on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations,” presentation to the Committee on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations, January 6, National Research Council, Washington, D.C., 2011, p. 36.
FIGURE S.1 NASA’s formula for determining minimum manifest requirements for staffing. SOURCE: NASA Astronaut Office, “Ensuring the Readiness of the Astronaut Corps: A White Paper,” NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Tex., March 25, 2011.
bers’ being medically disqualified from flying again until the condition improves. In the past, attrition rates for the Astronaut Corps were based on rates for both space shuttle and ISS missions. As NASA transitions to only long-duration ISS missions, it is difficult to predict attrition rates. After their first long-duration ISS mission, members of the Astronaut Corps might choose to leave the corps rather than fly another long-duration mission with its attendant stresses on family and home life.
The development of future spacecraft also involves programmatic uncertainties. NASA has traditionally assigned astronauts roles in the development of new vehicles to benefit from their insight regarding design and for reasons of safety and mission assurance. According to NASA, those roles need to be filled by members of the Astronaut Corps who will ultimately fly in the vehicles, not by management astronauts (former astronauts who are no longer eligible for flight assignment and who do not use NASA aircraft or other training facilities except as instructors, evaluators, mentors, or providers of expertise).3 However, as presented to the committee, NASA’s calculations for sizing the Astronaut Corps focused on preparing for planned missions and did not provide for filling those additional roles.
Viewed as a supply chain, astronaut selection and training are sensitive to critical shortfalls because of the long lead times and long recovery time between missions and because astronauts, trained for specific roles and missions, cannot be easily interchanged.
On the basis of its assessment of known and potential needs, the committee concluded that the currently projected minimum target size for the active Astronaut Corps poses a risk to the U.S. investment in human spaceflight capabilities; in particular, the committee notes that the planned Astronaut Corps, sized only to meet ISS crew requirements, would not have the flexibility to accommodate unexpected increases in attrition or commercial, exploration, and new mission development tasks. Because of various sources of uncertainty and because multiple factors are involved in the training of members of the Astronaut Corps and the operation of spacecraft in orbit, it is not possible to quantify the risk posed by tight margins or size or to provide a confidence level of risk. Nevertheless, the committee concluded that the Astronaut Corps is vital to the safe and successful operation of the ISS and that reducing its size too much can create shortages of key skills.
It currently takes 2 years to train a new astronaut in the full range of ISS skills and the fundamentals of spaceflight, aviation, and NASA programs. A newly hired astronaut is not given a technical assignment until about a year after being hired, and training continues. But that new hire will not generally be credible in representing NASA and the Astronaut Corps in, for example, commercial spaceflight, development of beyond-low-Earth-orbit (LEO) spacecraft, or supporting complex ISS operations or emergencies. (New astronauts are, however, highly skilled in their own fields from the outset and could provide immediate expertise in those fields, such as test-piloting, research, and engineering development.)
NASA would be able to respond to long-term programmatic commitments by hiring new classes oriented to them, but the most valuable personnel to retain are those with spaceflight experience and long experience in
3 Management astronauts can serve as instructors, evaluators, mentors, or providers of expertise and in most cases do not use “additional” training assets. These training assets are being used in the normal course of the event that the astronaut, or whoever would act in that role, is supporting. (In a very small number of cases, additional resources may be required for the astronaut instructor to keep current, but, again, this would be required of any instructor.)
NASA’s operations and development programs. FCOD will not have the luxury of hiring new people to deal with a serious failure aboard the ISS or in the early stages of the development and oversight of commercial spacecraft and spacecraft beyond LEO.
NASA’s Astronaut Office, which includes both the Astronaut Corps and such additional personnel as management astronauts no longer qualified to fly on space missions, supports several tasks. During its study, the committee noted that the Astronaut Office did not explicitly identify providing operational knowledge and corporate memory of human spaceflight as among its tasks, although this responsibility is implicit in the work that the Astronaut Office does. As a result, the committee specifically identified provision of operational knowledge and corporate memory of human spaceflight as one of the Astronaut Office’s tasks, but it notes that maintaining this capability does not drive the minimum manifest requirement for members of the Astronaut Corps.
NASA plans to make periodic selections of a relatively small number of new astronaut candidates over the next few years. The committee believes that that is appropriate and that it is up to NASA to determine how often to make such selections; the committee’s recommendation concerns only the model for calculating requirements.
Findings and Recommendations on the Role and Size of the Activities Managed by FCOD4
Finding 2.1a. NASA’s current Astronaut Office’s role is to support six tasks (in priority order):5
1. Provide well-trained spaceflight operators to support the NASA flight manifest.
2. Provide ground support personnel for tasks required specifically to support the NASA flight manifest.
3. Provide support for new program development, ranging from development of relatively small payloads and equipment to development of whole new spacecraft designs.
4. Provide operational knowledge and corporate memory of human spaceflight.
5. Provide for collaboration with other government and private organizations as needed and directed by NASA.
6. Provide support for public and educational outreach to society.
The first task is the one in FCOD’s model that drives the size of the Astronaut Corps—the number of astronauts qualified to fly in space. But the demands of tasks 2 through 6 add to the workload. The committee supports these roles as a proper use of an important core capability both now and into the future.
Management (inactive) astronauts serving in civil service positions in the Astronaut Office provide supplemental support for tasks 2 through 6. They do not use training assets except as instructors, evaluators, mentors, or providers of expertise; are ineligible for flight; and do not provide a reserve capacity for flight assignments.
Finding 2.1b. Although NASA’s human spaceflight program and its post-shuttle crew requirements have not been well defined beyond operation of the ISS, the sizing of the Astronaut Corps to meet ISS crew requirements has been well modeled by using ISS crew selection, training and flight recovery times, and a plan for post-shuttle force reduction.
Finding 2.1c. Astronaut anthropometric (physical size) limitations for flying in the Soyuz limit flexibility in crew assignments in response to contingencies.
Conclusion 2.1. On the basis of its assessment of known and potential needs, the committee concluded that the currently projected minimum staffing target size for the active Astronaut Corps poses a risk to the U.S. investment in human spaceflight capabilities. The committee concluded that given the array of potential crew assignment constraints and uncertainty in future requirements, the Astronaut Corps appears
4 The numbering of the findings and recommendations mirrors their numbering in Chapters 2 and 3.
5 NASA identified tasks 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6; the committee has added task 4.
to be sized below the minimum required. The committee notes that the current plan for the size of the Astronaut Corps does not have the flexibility to accommodate commercial, exploration, and new mission development tasks or unexpected increases in attrition.
• The committee recommends that the factor for uncertainty used by the Astronaut Office in its model to determine minimum staffing requirements for the Astronaut Corps be increased above the current 25 percent, which is inadequate to provide sufficient flexibility to meet the current flight manifest requirements reliably.
• In addition to task 1, the Astronaut Office should maintain the staff required to accomplish tasks 2 through 6 as listed in Finding 2.1a.
Finding 2.2. In addition to the need to meet NASA requirements, there is an expectation on the part of commercial crew providers and the Federal Aviation Administration that FCOD expertise and capabilities will be available in the future.
Recommendation 2.2. NASA’s Flight Crew Operations Directorate should continue to serve as a national resource for U.S. human spaceflight experience and knowledge. This resource should be
• Maintained to ensure appropriate staffing and training of the Astronaut Corps in support of the International Space Station manifest;
• Applied to the future development of NASA human spaceflight and exploration activities;
• Available to the emerging commercial space industry and the FAA; and
• Applied to support authorized agreements with international partners.
Question 2—Ground-Based Training Facilities
The committee assessed the requirements for ground-based training and simulation facilities, such as the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, the ISS part-task trainers, and the shuttle simulators. It found that the NASA plan for the size and tasks of the Astronaut Corps to support the on-orbit and ground requirements for the ISS will use both high-performance aircraft maintained by the JSC FCOD and ISS mission-specific ground facilities maintained by the JSC MOD. The committee found that after space shuttle retirement the mission-specific spaceflight operations requirements for crew will shift from shuttle operations and ISS assembly to Soyuz and ISS operations, ISS maintenance, and emergency response. The committee believes that to accomplish training for those tasks, more specifically to be able to respond to on-orbit problems safely and successfully, NASA will need to maintain the current ISS training facilities. As the requirements for commercial crew support and the future human space exploration program become clearer, there may be a need for additional astronauts and new flight or ground-based training facilities.
Findings and Recommendations on Ground-Based Facilities
Finding 3.1. The NASA plan for post-shuttle retirement of shuttle-specific training facilities is generally appropriate. However, the Shuttle Engineering Simulator Dome may be useful in training for future activities, such as rendezvous and docking operations during commercial transportation of ISS crew.
Recommendation 3.1. sNASA should evaluate potential future requirements for the Shuttle Engineering Simulator Dome and, if it will be needed, should preserve this facility.
Finding 3.2a. Now that the shuttle is retired, the specific spaceflight crew operations shift from shuttle operations and ISS assembly to Soyuz and ISS nominal and emergency operations, ISS payload opera-
tions, and ISS maintenance. The requirements for training of flight crews for those ISS operations include emergency response training, extravehicular activity operations, and the full suite of nominal operations for U.S. and international partner ISS elements, including Soyuz. Thus, the ISS ground-based training facilities are required for the support of crew training for future operations and maintenance of the ISS.
Finding 3.2b. The requirements for U.S. astronaut training include international partner ISS element operations at international partner facilities and Soyuz operations in Russia. The U.S. international partner agreements also require that the United States provide for enhancing skill proficiency and training for the international partner astronauts.
Recommendation 3.2. NASA should retain the capability and training facilities to conduct International Space Station (ISS) mission-specific training after retirement of the space shuttle to ensure the continued safety and mission success of ISS operations.
Question 3—Aircraft Training
Ground-based simulators for spaceflight missions are used for approximately 90 percent of crew training. Only a small part of the training, designated by NASA as spaceflight readiness training (SFRT), puts the crew into operational environments in which they share some aspects of the fast dynamics, physical stress, and risk found in spaceflight. This kind of training is currently accomplished primarily by using a T-38N Talon two-person jet, a high-performance training aircraft that was originally purchased by the Air Force as a fighter pilot trainer more than 50 years ago. (Flight in the T-38N represents 10 percent of the training time for unassigned astronauts and 5 percent of the training time for those assigned to an upcoming mission. The most significant constraint on assigned astronauts’ acquiring flight time is that they are training overseas for a great deal of time.)
It is important to emphasize that SFRT is not just about flying the T-38N as the pilot in command. Instead, it is about developing the skills and ability to work together in an environment that is fast-paced, is physically stressful, and carries potentially severe penalties for failure. SFRT involves both the pilot in command of the aircraft and the person in the backseat, dividing responsibilities. For example, the backseat flyer frequently handles navigation, communications, and crew resource management duties during flight and must coordinate with the pilot, who is actually flying the aircraft. Hands-on control of the aircraft by backseaters is a big part of SFRT. SFRT is useful for many aspects of spaceflight—not only for operation of a spacecraft, such as Soyuz, but for operations onboard the International Space Station.
NASA currently has a fleet of 21 T-38s for astronaut training and intends to reduce this number to 16 in 2013 because of a planned reduction in the size of the Astronaut Corps. Small “environmental” additions to flight training include exposure to hypoxia in the JSC high-altitude chamber, a one-time run in the Russian centrifuge at Star City6 (for a medical evaluation during exposure to ballistic re-entry), and survival training (for water and land). SFRT is designed to provide evaluation of training and crew performance in an environment that most closely replicates the physical and psychological stresses of the high-speed dynamic environment of spaceflight.
The committee assessed the value of using high-performance training aircraft, the basis of the projected size of the current T-38N fleet and alternative aircraft, and the potential for using high-fidelity simulators for SFRT. The committee also was provided input from the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program regarding its training tools and experiences and from the commercial aviation industry.
Findings and Recommendations on Spaceflight Readiness Training
Finding 3.3a. The spaceflight readiness training requirement is derived from safety and mission success requirements, not tied to any specific mission. Although the requirement is not expressly documented at the NASA Headquarters program level, it was developed by the Flight Crew Operations Directorate
6 The most accurate translation of the Russian name is “Starry Town,” but “Star City” is the common usage at NASA.
in response to NASA Headquarters-controlled safety and mission success requirements and embedded at the level of the NASA JSC Certificate of Flight Readiness for safe operations of flight, which is then provided to NASA Headquarters. Any changes in spaceflight readiness training need to be made with great care because changes can result in increased risk to safety and mission success.
Finding 3.3b. Spaceflight readiness training using high-performance aircraft has been demonstrated and documented to prepare crews for successful and safe spaceflight, dating back 50 years, from the inception of the Mercury program to the current International Space Station program. SFRT is more than just flying—the full spectrum of experiences gained is not restricted to the operation of high-performance aircraft but extrapolates to crew resource management and performance under stress. SFRT is used effectively internationally to produce qualified members of the Astronaut Corps who are independent of crew position or vehicle design.
Recommendation 3.3. To ensure continued safety and mission success, NASA should maintain a spaceflight readiness training program that includes high-performance aircraft.
Finding 3.4a. FCOD maintains the Astronaut Corps and provides the capability to conduct SFRT.
Finding 3.4b. High-performance aircraft present conditions, including crew disorientation and rapid fluctuation in G-forces, under which the flight crew must carry out complex tasks in a stressful and potentially life-threatening environment. That combination of unique environments, demand for rapid, critical decision making, and historical evidence convinced the committee that SFRT provides experience-based training that cannot be duplicated by current or, to the best of the committee’s knowledge, projected alternative techniques or technologies.
Finding 3.4c. Given the current investment in the existing T-38N fleet, this fleet is the most cost-effective means of providing SFRT in the near term. In the long term, new technology that may be a more cost-effective means of providing SFRT might be demonstrated and proved.
Finding 3.4d. The size of the T-38N SFRT fleet is projected to fall to 16 aircraft in 2013.
Recommendation 3.4. NASA should retain the T-38N fleet for spaceflight readiness training and should fund the fleet at a level commensurate with the projected required size of the post-shuttle Astronaut Corps.
Finding and Recommendation on Learning from Other Occupations
Finding 3.5. Substantial research is being undertaken on selection and training of personnel in related high-stress occupations. Some of that work is leading to continually improving methods and technologies for training for team and individual performance in stressful high-risk situations.
Recommendation 3.5. NASA should continue to monitor training methods and technologies in related fields for possible ways to enhance the astronaut selection and training process.
ORGANIZATION OF THIS REPORT
Chapter 1 of this report explains the evolution of the U.S. astronaut program, detailing how the Astronaut Corps has grown and shrunk over time, why it has done so, and how its composition has changed. It also describes the evolution of the ground training facilities. Finally, it explains how and why spaceflight readiness training that requires an aircraft training capability was introduced to the program and how that capability has evolved.
Chapter 2 responds to the committee’s first task. It explains the current status of NASA’s FCOD, its Astronaut
Office, and the Astronaut Corps. It also explains new situations that the human spaceflight program is facing, such as the introduction of new spacecraft. It provides findings and recommendations concerning the role and size of the FCOD’s activities and the size of the Astronaut Corps.
Chapter 3 responds to the committee’s second and third tasks regarding ground-based training facilities and the T-38N fleet. It explains the role of spaceflight readiness training, how it is served by the T-38N fleet of training aircraft, and possibilities for future simulator-based training; it also notes that other occupations offer potential lessons for NASA astronaut training. It provides findings and recommendations concerning ground-based training facilities, the T-38N aircraft fleet, and simulators.