A Return to the Right Stuff?

In previous posts I’ve talked about the changing culture of risk at NASA and about the qualities and characteristics that make astronauts stand apart from the rest of the population. Recently, I’ve begun to notice a correlation between these two facets of spaceflight. In the 1960s when the astronauts were test pilots routinely facing death, NASA took more risks. In recent years as the astronaut corps has grown to include more scientists as well as everyday people like school teachers, the missions have become more routine – low Earth orbit has become a comfort zone throughout the shuttle program. (Left, the Mercury astronauts. 1959.)

Over the past half-century, NASA’s astronauts have gone from heavy drinking and fast driving fighter jocks riding in cobbled together capsules to engineers and scientists in sophisticated spacecraft. Tied up in this shift, is there an expectation that NASA will never let anything bad happen to its astronauts? Is the growing need for safety potentially standing in the way of bold manned missions that assume the same risk as 1968s Apollo 8?

NASA has an interesting history with regard to risk. During the space race, the organization took chances in space to stay ahead of the Soviet Union. The Mercury and Gemini programs progressed at breakneck speed to solve all the pieces of the lunar landing puzzle before the end of the decade. In the wake of Apollo, the pace slowed. The Shuttle program put NASA in a low Earth orbit comfort zone, a necessity due to continually diminishing funds.

Even though NASA now has only a fraction of its Apollo-era budget, the organization has the tools and the minds to take on Apollo-era challenges. A slower pace may be the only difference. There is no shortage of interesting mission ideas floating through NASA at any given time; in terms of Mars a manned ‘circumMartian’ mission might be a good choice. It could give NASA a focus for its energies that would yield scientific return and inspire the public to rekindle its love affair with exploration and adventure. (Buzz Aldrin trains for orbital rendezvous. 1966.)

But there are significant risks facing a Mars-bound crew – radiation, muscular atrophy, and psychological trauma to name a few. One-way missions to Mars halve the risks since the astronauts will spend half as long in interplanetary flight, but the trade-off is dying on another planet far from any comforts of home.

If NASA were to send a mission to Mars – one-way or return – and couldn’t guarantee the safety of the crew, a public outcry likely wouldn’t be far behind. NASA has proved that it can make something as spectacular as spaceflight seem routine. The shuttle’s slow but steady launch pace and only two fatalities in thirty years have established a good track record worth maintaining.

The flip side, however, is that those observing NASA operation have come to expect a certain amount of safety for American astronauts. The astronauts, meanwhile, know the dangers and the risks but do the job anyways.

It seems as though the expected safety of astronauts is tied into their current status. Many astronauts have military backgrounds, but few are actively serving their country. There is an expectation that those in the service might die. No one expects a former Naval aviator to die, even if he is an astronaut. In the 1960s, however, all the astronauts were active military test pilots. In fact, the move from test pilot to astronaut increased their level of safety at work. High risk individuals used to take on this high risk job. Now, it seems like anybody can do it, and that somehow makes astronaut survival seem more important.

The first group of astronauts selected in 1959 were pulled from the ranks of military test pilots. Each had to have an academic background in engineering, have graduated from a test pilot school, and have a minimum of 1,500 hours flying jet aircraft. The second astronaut group joined NASA in 1962 and the third joined in 1963. In both cases the selection criteria were the same; the number of flight hours in jets was slightly different, but they were still the same breed of men. (Pictured, the first group of Mercury astronauts seated with the second group – the New Nine – standing. 1962.)

The fourth group to join NASA in 1965 began a shift away from the shared military background. This was the first group of scientist-astronauts. The flight requirement was waived for this group; PhDs weighed heavier that skills in an airplane. Of the six men selected in this group, only one, Jack Schmitt, would fly with Apollo. As a trained geologist, he was the only scientist to walk on the moon.

In 1966, the fifth group of astronauts joined NASA. This group made up the remainder of the men who would fly as part of the Apollo program. Filling out the ranks for the lunar program, NASA reverted to the criteria of the first three groups. Skill in an airplane became the most important attribute of an astronaut.

Throughout the 1960s, every astronaut with the exception of Schmitt shared an affiliation with the military. Most were actually on loan to NASA from their respective military branch for the duration of their careers in space. They were all men accustomed to dealing with risk as part of their daily lives. The assumption was that NASA would keep its men safe – their safe return was one of the organization’s directive from its inception in 1958. Still, the risks were real and the test pilots turned astronauts met those risks head on. (Above, Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt during their APollo 17 lunar mission. 1972.)

In 1968, the sixth group of astronauts to join NASA anticipated a major shift. NASA began separating its astronauts into two designations: mission specialist and pilot. Mission specialists brought a scientific element to the crew while the pilots were charged with flying the spacecraft. With this division of labour the military affiliation of astronauts started to fade. Most pilots were former military pilots rather than active duty pilots. Mission specialists, on the other hand, came from a variety of backgrounds that often didn’t include any flight background.

Ten years later when the eighth group joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1978, the divide between pilots and mission specialists was firm. A third category of astronaut was added to NASA’s roster in the early 1980s: payload specialist. Payload specialists are astronauts who train for a specific mission and serve a specific function. They are not typically skilled scientists; they are the senators, pop stars, and Indian princes who make it to the final frontier. When John Glenn flew on the space shuttle in 1998 (pictured), he did so as a payload specialist.

With payload specialists, spaceflight became truly and relatable human. These weren’t skilled engineers and pilots who routinely faced death. They were people with regular jobs, like school teachers.

Perhaps the most recognizable payload specialist is Christa McAuliffe, who also provides a great example of the public’s assumption that spaceflight is a safe endeavour. McAuliffe joined NASA as part of the Teacher in Space Program that was designed to inspire students, honour teachers, and spur a general interest in math and science. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded just after launch in January 1986, the crew was killed on live television in front of millions both at home and in classrooms across the nation.

People still feel pangs of sadness for the loss of McAuliffe at the mention of the Challenger explosion, but she is the only name most recall. Few can name any of her six crew mates. Likewise, most people are aware that the space shuttle Columbia fell apart during its return from orbit in 2003, but few can name any of the crew. None was, after all, a recognizable figure the typical everyman could relate to. (Left, McAuliffe trains for zero gravity. 1986.)

In the wake of both the Challenger and Columbia accidents, NASA spent years reviewing the accident without making any major changes to the hardware. It was almost as if the organization had to go into time out for killing people who knew the risks of their profession. If McAuliffe had been a test pilot instead of a teacher, would the loss have been different? Test pilots have one of the riskiest jobs, and they accept the risk. Is it more acceptable for a trained professional to die during a high risk experiment? (Challenger becomes a fireball shortly after launch. January 28, 1986.)

As NASA moves from the shuttle to its next manned program, the qualities necessary in an astronaut may change. Part of NASA’s biggest problem is a lack of funding and interest – no bucks, no Buck Rogers. But who would be a better Buck Rogers? Yes, the payload specialists that the everyman can feel a kinship with will draw the public in, but perhaps a return to the fighter jocks of the Apollo era would bring back a feeling that the astronauts are invincible. The public may accept that that their job is inherently dangerous, and that if they die on a mission it will have been in the name of space science. Perhaps working with astronauts willing to accept the risks of spaceflight will spur NASA on to riskier missions again.

Astronauts train for desert survival. 1963.

Suggested Reading

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff. Picador. 2008.


  1. Stu Young says

    The history of proposed “circum-Martian” missions is interesting. There was one proposal made as part of the Apollo Applications Program, using a Saturn V to boost a MORL and an Apollo CSM on a trajectory which would take the crew on a flyby of Mars and Venus. Robotic probes would be dropped at each planet. The former Soviet Union and Robert Zubrin have also proposed such missions (the latter project was named “Athena” by Zubrin).

    A recent proposal by Lockheed-Martin involves a manned mission to Mars orbit, and exploration of the moon Deimos, using two docked Orion spacecraft. I would prefer it if such a mission included exploration of Phobos as well, which seems like a natural choice for a Martian orbital space station. I believe LockMart prefers the Deimos-only scenario because it saves on delta-vee (due to Deimos’ higher orbit, inclination, etc.).

    One might wonder what the advantage would be of sending humans to Mars orbit. To me, the teleoperation of rovers on the Martian surface, in real time, would be a real advantage when compared to the plan-execute-stop-analyze-plan-execute cycle which the MER rovers (and eventually the MSL) have to go through, due to the time delay in sending and receiving transmissions from Mars. Also, while humans-in-the-loop might not be essential for ISRU and sample-return experiments, the need to send so much mass to Mars to support humans might justify such experiments as “tag-along” projects.

    Definitely, astronauts going on such missions would have to have the traditional “right stuff” once again!

    Many thanks, as always, for making available the unique photos of Buzz Aldrin (and the never-tested Gemini-era version of a “MMU”), the Mercury Seven and the New Nine, Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt, etc. One of the things I most enjoy about your site is the photos and illustrations which I’ve never seen before. The usual, familiar photos have become old; your photos recapture the dynamism, daring, and optimism of the early space program.

    Thanks again,

    Stu Young

  2. John says

    I believe that the Cold War was the primary reasons so many risks were taken in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. To our leaders the importance of beating the Soviets to the Moon was such that risks were taken as it it were an actual war.

    In those times the test pilots were the Right Stuff for the missions.

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