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NASA lacks astronauts for missions to the Moon and Mars: why finding them is not so easy

NASA may need more astronauts to meet human spaceflight goals in the coming years. This is stated in the report of the agency, writes Space.

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Currently, NASA only delivers astronauts to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules and Russian Soyuz spacecraft. But the Artemis agency's ambitious program to return humans to the Moon should change that. The first manned mission of the program is planned for 2024. This flight should be the first step in the development of a long-term lunar exploration program that supports future exploration of Mars.

As a result, NASA is considering sending more astronauts off-Earth — likely more than the agency can provide, according to a report from the Office of the Investigator General released Jan. 11.

“In 2000, the number of astronauts reached its peak - 150 people. But in 2011, when the Space Shuttle missions ended, there were 44 of them left. This was one of the lowest numbers of astronauts in the agency over the past 20 years, ”the report says.

“As NASA enters a new era of human spaceflight, including returning to the Moon and eventually landing humans on Mars, effective management of the astronaut corps—the people who carry out its spaceflight missions—is critical to the agency’s success.” says in the report.

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While flying may be the primary focus of NASA astronaut duties, the agency assigns astronauts roles such as capsule communicators that relay information from mission control to space, train new astronauts, and educate the public about NASA's work, among other things.

NASA now has the smallest astronaut troop since the crew was reduced to 1970 in the 40s. The current size of the corps is partly driven by a sharp increase in retirements - about 10 a year, according to the report - around 2011, when the agency grounded its fleet of space shuttles and flight capabilities plummeted.

The potential shortage is further complicated by the fact that astronauts are not interchangeable, the report notes. NASA assigns individual astronauts to specific flights based on criteria ranging from flight experience to their vehicle-specific training and how their personal experience fits in with the rest of the crew.

The report warns that these requirements will become more difficult to meet as NASA astronauts fly more different types of vehicles to more destinations.

“With a single-mission-focused corps, as it is now with the International Space Station (ISS), the Astronaut Office can quickly reassign astronauts because all 44 were selected and initially trained for the same mission,” the report says. “However, as the agency takes on new missions with new requirements and new vehicles, fewer astronauts will be trained and available for each mission.”

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The agency uses a formula to determine how many astronauts it will recruit into each new class of astronaut candidates. The new class of 10 was announced in December 2021 and has just begun a shared two-year program of study; the prior class, which graduated in January 2020, added 11 astronauts to the corps.

Preparations for a flight to the space station require an additional 18–24 months. Currently in space are the first two astronauts to fly from the last graduating class, Raja Chari and Kayla Barron. That lengthy training time means recruits likely won't start flying until the end of 2025, so the agency needs to think about its decade-end crew needs now.

Artemis missions are expected to require roughly the same period of dedicated training as space station missions. But while NASA has selected a group of 18 astronauts to form the Artemis crew, it has yet to release any seats, and the agency has not developed a training program for its lunar missions; the report warned that the agency may not have enough time for this process.

"While the Astronaut Office estimates that training for this and subsequent missions will take approximately two years, even with projected launch delays, the agency may overestimate the time available to develop and implement the required training structure and regime around the world," the report notes. .

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Overall, the report expresses concern that NASA's astronaut corps will join the list of future mission restrictions, along with factors such as budget, space suit supply, and rocket production.

“If not addressed, these factors could potentially lead to disruptive crew reorganizations, long training periods or mission delays,” the report said.

In addition to noted concerns about astronaut numbers and training schedules, the report suggests, among other things, that the agency strengthen its data information management system, including astronaut demographics and skills, to facilitate the appointment process.

For example, since NASA is seeking to diversify its presence in space, the agency needs accurate demographics of its astronauts, the report notes. Similarly, as missions head towards the surface of planets rather than low Earth orbit, it will be important to keep track of which astronauts have backgrounds in geology — there are currently only four, according to the paper.

As part of the reporting process, the Office of the Inspector General provided a draft document for comment by Cathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations. She wrote that the agency agreed with all four of the report's recommendations and intended to implement them by November.

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