The Washington Post - USA (2020-09-16)

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for those missions would be the
most-anticipated crew assign-
ments since the Apollo era 50
years ago. But it will be different in
one key respect, Bridenstine said:
He would like to see the missions
showcase an astronaut corps that
is far more diverse than those of
the 1960s and 70s.
“When we do select the corps of
astronauts that will be flying they
must be reflective of the nation as
a whole,” he said in an interview.
“It’s about inspiration. We want
every single person to be able to
see themselves doing what these
American heroes are doing.”

trip to orbit the moon by 2023, as
part of its Artemis program.
That has had a public relations
benefit as well that Bridenstine, in
his quest to sell Congress on the
White House’s moon plan, has
used to woo members, especially
Democrats. When he pitched Rep.
Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) and
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-
Calif.) at an event last year, he got
this reaction: “I look forward to a
woman astronaut landing on the
moon,” Eshoo said.
“As far as having a woman step
foot on the moon, our hopes are
riding on you, Jim.”
The selection of the astronauts

Slayton and George Abbey, both
NASA legends who spent years
selecting astronauts for missions.
The evaluation is rigorous, the
training intense and the stakes are
high because NASA is “about to
give you responsibility for a multi-
billion-dollar vehicle where errors
can be fatal.”
Bridenstine has said that the
agency would send the “next man
and the first woman” to walk on
the moon by 2024, an accelerated
timeline dictated by the White
House. It appears unlikely that the
agency will be able to meet that
deadline, but it is pressing ahead
and plans to send astronauts on a

“I think you better read up on
this,” Smith said. “Because you’re
going to Hubble.”
Massimino’s next mission as-
signment was just as surprising.
He and a fellow astronaut were
meeting with Steve Lindsey, then
the newly appointed head of the
astronaut office, to discuss an-
other upcoming mission to the
Hubble telescope. The astronauts
looked confused as he talked
about the particulars, so he
stopped and said, “You do know
you’re on it, right?”
There are a few reasons the
astronaut office remains so mum
about the flight assignments. It’s a
personnel decision, and a highly
public one, with big egos on the
line. But there are also lots of
outside influences that would like
to exert force over the astronaut
office — including Capitol Hill.
The reticence stems in part “to
avoid politics influencing the se-
lection process,” said Robert
Pearlman, a space historian and
journalist who edits the website “It could be an
opportunity for senators wanting
to see their home state astronauts
There also have been rivalries
between the branches of the mili-
tary that have sent officers to the
astronaut corps. And the astro-
naut office prizes teamwork over
individuality. The leadership in
Houston strives to remain even-
handed and fair among a few doz-
en of the most ambitious individu-
als on the planet.
“They want to avoid rivalry
within the astronaut office itself,
which would not be healthy for
what is supposed to be a team
working together to achieve a
common goal,” Pearlman said.
Capabilities matter, and so does
experience. And the chief astro-
naut, who is primarily responsible
for the decision, looks at a variety
of factors, the most important of
which is: “What is going to make
the mission most successful,” said
Peggy Whitson, who was chief as-
tronaut from 2009 to 2012, a posi-
tion now held by Pat Forrester.
The International Space Sta-
tion is a sort of flying Gilligan’s
Island, where everyone has to get
along and bring their own indi-
vidual expertise. If the mission
calls for a lot of repairs, you want
good space walkers. If there is a lot
of science to be done, you want
astronauts adept at, say, research-
ing rodents or growing human
“It gets very complex,” Whitson
said. “There are other factors as
well: When’s the last time the per-
son flew? Whose turn is it to fly?
Because you want to spread the
wealth as much as possible.”
When it came to the inaugural
flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon,
NASA chose two of its best,
Behnken and Hurley. Both are vet-
eran astronauts and former mili-
tary pilots who the agency knew
would stay cool in case anything
went awry. For future missions, it’s
assembling more diverse teams,
pairing rookies with seasoned as-
tronauts, scientists with military
pilots to give crews a broad exper-
NASA has long looked for a “mix
of specialties and backgrounds so
that everyone would educate each
other with the best of what they
knew,” said Michael Cassutt, who
has written biographies of Deke

her Russian counterparts? Even
Epps, a former technical intelli-
gence officer at the CIA, was baf-
fled about the move, saying
months later, “I’m not sure of the
reasons myself.”
“A number of factors are consid-
ered when making flight assign-
ments,” a spokesperson for NASA
said at the time. “These decisions
are personnel matters for which
NASA doesn’t provide informa-
But Epps is getting a second
shot, this time on Boeing’s Starlin-
er spacecraft, which still needs to
be certified by NASA for human
flight. Again, there was no expla-
nation for the decision when it
was announced last month. Just a
terse news release from the John-
son Space Center in Houston that
she would join NASA astronauts
Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada
on the mission.
“They keep it very close hold,”
said Janet Kavandi, who flew
three space shuttle missions as a
NASA astronaut and now heads
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s space sys-
tems business. “You usually have
no idea you’re being considered
for a mission.”
The selection usually comes as
a sudden, and joyous, surprise: “It
can be anywhere anytime,” Kavan-
di said.
In the late 1990s, Kavandi was
speaking at an elementary school
and “knee-deep in kindergart-
ners” when suddenly she was
summoned to the principal’s of-
fice to take an urgent phone call
from the head of the astronaut
office. Filled with dread, she knew
this could not be good and girded
herself for what was to come.
“I just wanted you to know
you’ve been assigned to the mis-
sion,” she was told.
When former NASA astronaut
Mike Massimino was chosen for
his first flight assignment, a mis-
sion to the Hubble Space Tele-
scope in 2002, Steve Smith, the
deputy chief astronaut, knew the
Friday before but was sworn to
secrecy until Monday. The pair
were friends and neighbors, with
kids the same age, and they spent
the weekend together.
Saturday was Massimino’s
birthday, but still Smith couldn’t
say a word. So Monday morning at
7:30 a.m., Smith showed up on his
neighbor’s front door “and hand-
ed me an illustrated children’s
book about the Hubble Space Tele-
“What the heck is this for?”
Massimino said, according to his
memoir, “Spaceman.”

realize NASA’s astronauts were
still flying to space routinely.
Now there is an array of flying
options, not seen in decades, com-
ing to fruition and all launching
from Cape Canaveral. There’s
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft,
which in May became the first
spacecraft to launch NASA astro-
nauts from United States soil in
nearly a decade. Boeing is also
working to get its Starliner cap-
sule ready, with a first crewed
flight set for sometime next year.
And NASA hopes Lockheed Mar-
tin’s Orion spacecraft will fly as-
tronauts on a trip around the
moon by 2023.
All of which means it’s an excit-
ing time to be an astronaut, espe-
cially as the highly coveted assign-
ments for the 48-member NASA
astronaut corps in Houston are
being handed out. It’s also a
chance for NASA to showcase its
astronauts and attempt to rekin-
dle the national enthusiasm they
once inspired. In the decades
since Apollo, when astronauts
were household names and re-
vered as heroes, they are now
largely anonymous.
Jim Bridenstine, the NASA ad-
ministrator and a former member
of Congress, has led a campaign of
sorts to highlight this new genera-
tion of astronauts. He’s pushed for
astronauts to be able to appear in
commercials, even on cereal box-
es. That, in turn, would not only
raise the agency’s profile in popu-
lar culture, but also in Congress at
a time when NASA is lobbying
reluctant members for the money
it needs to return humans to the
“I’d like to see kids growing up,
instead of maybe wanting to be
like a professional sports star, I’d
like to see them grow up wanting
to be a NASA astronaut, or a NASA
scientist,” Bridenstine said in
The last few months have seen a
flurry of activity. In May, NASA
astronauts Bob Behnken and
Doug Hurley became the first
Americans to fly to orbit from
United States soil since the space
shuttle was retired in 2011. That
test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon
spacecraft opened the door for the
first operational mission, sched-
uled for next month. That flight
will feature a crew of four, NASA
astronauts Victor Glover, Shan-
non Walker and Michael Hopkins,
and Japanese astronaut Soichi
In August, shortly after the re-
turn of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule,
NASA announced that Megan
McArthur and Shane Kimbrough
were assigned to SpaceX’s second
operational mission, sometime
next year. Then a few weeks later,
Jeanette Epps was tapped to fly on
Boeing’s yet-to-be-flown Starliner.
Still to come: the biggest assign-
ment since Apollo: the crews for
the first flights to the moon in
about 50 years.
But how the assignments get
made remains a mysterious proc-
ess, cloaked in secrecy. As it has
from the days of Mercury and
Apollo, the astronaut office
doesn’t talk much about how it
decides who gets to fly or why.
When it comes to crew assign-
ments, NASA acts more like the
NSA — the National Security
Agency, the clandestine intelli-
gence agency that some say stands
for “Never Say Anything.”
“The process is mysterious on
the inside, too,” Leroy Chiao, a
former NASA astronaut, said in an
interview. “In the astronaut office
we used to say that the only thing
more mysterious than being se-
lected to a crew was how you got
selected to be an astronaut in the
first place.”
No one knows that better than
Epps, who had been selected to fly
on the Russian Soyuz in a mission
that would have made her the first
African American to spend an ex-
tended period of time on the Inter-
national Space Station, though six
have visited the orbiting labora-
But in 2018, Epps was suddenly
pulled from the mission and re-
placed by Serena Auñón-Chancel-
lor, a fellow astronaut. Rumors
swirled — was it because Epps was
Black? Was there a conflict with


NASA seeks more flights and recognition for its astronauts

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has pushed to give the newest class of NASA astronauts, shown at their graduation, the kind of fame that pioneering astronauts had.


Then-astronaut candidate Jonny Kim practices in a flight simulator
last year as fellow astronaut candidate Raja Chari watches.





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