Instructed by his father, 9-year-old Jose Hernandez marched up to the family television set to wriggle the rabbit-ears antenna, hoping to sharpen the black-and-white image of American men walking on the moon. It was December 1972, during Apollo 17, and Hernandez was transfixed.
"I would go outside, look at the moon, and come back inside and look at the images on TV. I remember being all of 9 years old and telling my parents, 'That's what I want to do when I grow up,'" he recalled. And he did it. He became an engineer and applied to be an astronaut 12 times before he finally made the cut in 2004. Then he made just one trip to space before hanging up his flight suit for good last month.
It wasn't because he'd realized his dream and moved on. It was because there was nothing in this country for him to fly.
Hernandez could have stayed in the astronaut corps and trained to fly on the International Space Station, but the commitment was just too much. The post-shuttle astronaut training regimen involves six-week jaunts to Japan, Canada, Russia and Europe over two and a half years, and then a six-month stay on the ISS. Hernandez chose to stay in Houston with his wife and five kids.
"I had to make a decision, so I chose for the sake of the family to leave NASA," he said. He said people might have asked why a father of five became an astronaut in the first place, given the arduous training and long absences.
"My answer would be, I didn't expect to be called to Russia," he said.
Including Hernandez, five veteran astronauts have left NASA since August 2010. Linda Godwin and Scott Altman were the first of the wave, departing in August. Godwin retired and Altman went to work for a firm called ASRC Research and Technology. In December, Alan Poindexter left the agency to return to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., where he will serve as dean of students. And Jan. 3, Marsha Ivins retired.
As NASA prepares for space shuttle Discovery's 39th and final flight today — with just two more shuttle flights left — current and former astronauts wonder whether more of their colleagues will move on, with no prospects of an American spacecraft for many years.
When Leroy Chiao was selected in 1990, leaving the space agency was the last thing he imagined, he said. He attended a retirement party during his first week of astronaut training and couldn't fathom why anyone would walk away. He was 8 when he watched Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface, and like Hernandez, he dreamt of becoming an astronaut. But 15 years later, things changed.
Chiao flew on three shuttle missions and once on a Russian Soyuz, after which he commanded the International Space Station for six and a half months. When he got home, he realized he was done.
"Especially after having flown and lived on the ISS, it was kind of like eating a big meal. I was full. It was great, I had a wonderful experience, but it was like, 'You know what, it's time to go do something else,'" he said. He left NASA in December 2005.
Both Chiao and Hernandez added that they wanted other astronauts to have a chance to fly.
"I didn't feel bad that I was leaving (NASA) in dire straits. I think we have enough astronauts and not enough slots for them to fly," Hernandez said. "In a way I think I'm doing them a favor in alleviating the numbers, and I get to enjoy my family."
Hernandez's class was the last astronaut group that applied with the expectation of flying at least one shuttle mission before the program ended. But the candidates were still asked about their post-shuttle ambitions during the interview process, he recalled.
"We got a call asking would we still be interested in being astronauts if the shuttle program got canceled. In 2004, I said yes, I'm still interested. If I had to train for a station flight, I'm more than willing to do that. But 7 years later, circumstances change," he said.
The class of 2009 was the first group to be chosen without a dedicated spacecraft for them to fly. When the candidates were announced, the Constellation program was slated to begin in 2015, meaning there would be a five-year gap between the shuttle's retirement and the debut of its replacement. Now it's even longer than that, with Constellation relegated to the dustbin and the future of American spaceflight resting on the shoulders of the private sector.
Before he announced the new candidates, Johnson Space Center Director Michael Coats said he had worried the uncertainty would deter astronaut candidates from applying. But NASA still received 3,564 applications from pilots, engineers, scientists and teachers — all of them fully aware they would not fly on the shuttle and would rely on Russian Soyuz craft to get to the space station. The new class is taking intensive Russian language lessons as part of their training.
Hernandez said the new candidates were fully aware when they applied that the shuttle program would be ending soon, and they willingly signed up for space station-based missions.
"But for my class and other classes, it's fair for them to consider whether they want to fly station missions," he said. "I really don't think they're thinking, 'I'm not going to get a spaceflight' — it comes down to a lifestyle. When we trained for a shuttle mission, most of the training, 95 percent of it, was here in Houston. At the end of the day we went back home to our families."
So what do you do next when your resume says "space shuttle trip?"
Chiao struck out on his own, working as a consultant, college professor, motivational speaker and wrangler of twin 4-year-old girls. He also served on the Augustine Commission, tasked with setting a new course for NASA, and which recommended scuttling the Constellation program. He supports developing the Orion vehicle, but he also supports commercial spaceflight development — he's a consultant for private ventures hoping to build their own spacecraft, and he believes he may even return to orbit someday aboard one of them.
Hernandez went to work for MEI Technologies, a Houston-based technology firm that has worked with NASA and with other aerospace companies. He wants to grow the company and serve as a role model to other young Americans, especially Hispanic Americans, he said. His first day was Jan. 31.
Neither expects a mass astronaut exodus, because everyone knew the shuttles had to retire at some point. Transitions between programs are always difficult, Chiao noted — it was hard for the astronaut corps who bridged Apollo to Skylab to the shuttle program, he said. Granted, this is a much longer gap.
"I feel for these guys; they were told they wouldn't fly on the shuttle, they would fly on the next vehicle, and they're watching the shuttle wind down and they have no idea when they're going to fly," Chiao said of the 2009 class. "By timing they can't control, they came in at a time of transition which results in all this uncertainty."
On the other hand, they know they'll get to space somehow, on Russian rockets or privately developed spacecraft.
"If I were one of these guys, would I come to NASA? Probably. My boyhood dream was to become an astronaut," he said.
Now that he's realized that dream and moved on, he's often asked if he misses any of it.
"I think that six and a half month flight was really satisfying," he said. "Of course I miss some of the folks there at NASA. But I don't miss being in space. Yet."
Pres Obama has sold our future to the Chinese.
This is one of the saddest things I've read. I wouldn't mind teaming up with other countries to share the cost but space is the future, it's as if all the 15th and 16th century explorers just packed it in and decided there was no reward for what they were doing despite the advances in ship-building, navigation, etc... Not a proud moment for us.
Space exploration needs to be a global effort where all countries contribute a percentage of their GDP to the Global Space Exploration effort. It is the only way we as a species can keep moving forward with our cultural, technological, and future evolution. Furthermore, I don't think there is a single country that can fund all the mega projects necessary for it to become reality. Now, if the good old US of A didn't spend 700 BILLION a year on defense and spent that on Space Exploration we'd see some very amazing things happen, but that's fantasy land.
@truth6575 NASA wouldn't know what to do with that much money. If about a 10 to 1 economic return like other space programs have that would aout 1/2 of the world economy. I find that idea scary (in good way).
Sorry I ment the US economy
The future of the space program isn't with Nasa, it's with the private companies, at least for the United States. In order for people to be interested in expanding into space, there has to be money to be made....and this is what will happen....space hotels will pop up, colonies on the moon will pop up, space mining companies will be created to mine moons and asteroids. Cargo ships and passenger ships will be created. This is where the U.S. space program is headed, and once this starts happening, I'm sure the U.S. military will want military space ships and colonies....but the private companies will start it....and then of course don't forget about the rest of the world with their space programs. All is not lost...see what happens in 30 years. :P
Equating going into space with the explorers of the 15th century... launch a ship into the sea, and find out there's only one island to land on, and it only takes 3 days to get there... the next closest is 7 months... Both are completely devoid of any kind of life, because their atmospheres either don't exist, or are so thin as to not exists...
... do I need to keep going? Propulsion technology is what we NEED, and the research for that isn't going to be done in space. If it's going to be done at all, it'll be done right here on the rock that spawned us all.
that is so ture boincman
I think it only proper that at least some of our current astronaut corps go to the private sector. The commercial startups will likely find it in their best financial interests (read; insurance underwriters) to have a certified astronaut for their command crew to be built around. Even in our depressed public economy, new processes and materials sciences are ensuring that we will have corporate interests launching their own wholly-owned payloads soon.
I'd like to join those that are thanking those astronauts that have or will leave NASA, when it is quite likely that many could elect to stay on in other capacities. I recognize that all of your efforts in getting yourselves selected for our space program represent phenomenal bodies of work in themselves, and it is then, at that point, where you began to use your great skills and curiosity for our benefit. Thank you for your tenacious dedication and patient tolerance that has helped us develop a technology base that the world can use as template for safe and effective integration necessary for sustained human presence in space.
Stop whining about the shuttle program ending...seriously you all sound like sobbing children. This may be the end of the shuttle program, but it gives way to further space advancements in the private sector. Its been YEARS and billions of dollars and NASA doesn't have THAT much to show for it all. We haven't even gone back to the moon in forever, and NASA wants to go to Mars? Seriously? All I see NASA or any joint-nation alliance doing is wasting billions if not trillions of dollars of taxpayers money (regardless of what nation you may be from).
@truth "Now, if the good old US of A didn't spend 700 BILLION a year on defense and spent that on Space Exploration we'd see some very amazing things happen, but that's fantasy land."
REALLY?!!?!? I love when people bitch about how much we spend on defense like all it pays for is bullets and armor. Billions have been funneled into defense which has led to years worth of R & D. What has that led to? You enjoy most of your technology you see today? Defense not only promotes the capability of dealing with threats, but it leads to advancements in technology. Don't know about you...rather have 100 billion towards defending the country then 100 billion wasted in flying bullshit missions to the moon and the ISS. You may disagree, but you'd change your tune quick when other nations take over. Oh man! We got over powered?! Can't we use our SPACE SHUTTLES and Moon base to defend ourselves! See the irony?
The Boeing company is sitting on a treasure trove of human spaceflight data and hardware.
If they can somehow shake off the lawyers and NASA, government / defense supplier mindset, they can easily use that heritage to make some serious cost-effective contributions to the economically viable future of human spaceflight, all in the near term.
One way to do this is to spin off the Shuttle / ISS human spaceflight group and let them run their own show as a small, separate and agile company.
This is a great move. Still love the shuttle though.
All of our B-52 pilots are flying (heavily rebuilt) aircraft that are much older than they are. What we have is a very visible "to get a new toy you have to throw away the old one"--such thinking bites-and boy, did they get bit. NOW lets take a look at those orbiters, make a plan to update them--and DO it. Will it be expensive?? You bet--but WAY cheaper than throwing them away and starting from zero--sometime you have to realize that some toy is better than NO toy. The idea of "Private enterprise designing and building our orbiters is DUMB--they have no experience--and unless you want a Challenger several times a year it just isn't the thing you want to do--politicians are clueless--the NASA administrators should have seen this coming EONS ago--but the really wanted that shiny new toy.
Robert1234 NO space program but we have the richest banks and financial institutions in the world! We should be SO PROUD! And just keep on voting for the corporation party with its two heads, the Democrats and Republicans. Yes Sir! I'll bend over one more time because the media tells me to and I's smile while you guys shove it to me, because I KNOW that change is bad unless its promised by the corporate party!
God, America is so screwed up! I'm ashamed of my country, a nation that can only manage to kill, maim and murder and suck money from the poor and middle class to the rich and richest while actually believing it's the best thing to do!
Americans have to be the dumbest people on earth!