NASA is a celebrated part of the United States government. We think of the agency as the brain trust of elite scientists and engineers and highly-trained astronauts. But does this organization really have elite brains? Let’s consider some of NASA’s past and present projects. Let’s start with its astronaut program. After all, there’s nothing quite like going into space to learn about the wonders of nature. Whether you’re interested in astronomy, the development of space technology, or the Space Shuttle program, NASA’s mission is the same.
NASA’s astronaut program
The astronaut selection process is rigorous, but not affected by the recent H1N1 pandemic. Applicants are judged on their backgrounds, capabilities, and “je ne sais quoi” that fits the agency’s mission. In September and November 2016, the Astronaut Selection Board invited 120 applicants to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for the first round of interviews. During the process, they underwent medical and behavioral health testing, were taken on tours of NASA facilities, and met with NASA astronauts.
The current class of astronaut candidates consists of thirteen men and three women. Eleven are military personnel and ten are pursuing careers as mission specialists. The remaining astronaut candidates are pilots or aspiring pilots. The astronauts are required to hold a bachelor’s degree and have at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command experience. Candidates must also pass an extensive space physical examination, and must meet specific height and weight requirements.
NASA’s relationship with the private space launch sector
The recent support for SpaceX by NASA has transformed the aerospace industry. Even entrenched aerospace contractors are turning to new technologies to cut the cost of spaceflight. And in the past, Russian and Chinese rockets dominated the launch market, but now U.S. companies are competing with them to win the business. Ultimately, NASA benefits from multiple domestic and international partners. However, the private space launch sector has its own issues to address.
While Boeing and SpaceX are still developing their systems, they’re also working closely with NASA to achieve certifications that make the system ready for operational use. The companies will have to conduct both an uncrewed and crewed test flight, and NASA will certify those systems if they pass the certification process. SpaceX successfully conducted an uncrewed test flight in March 2019, but it destroyed the capsule during preparations for its IFA test in January 2020. Boeing is working with NASA to conduct the same test in 2020.
NASA’s focus on the Space Shuttle program
The paused operations of the Space Shuttle program are a sign of NASA’s attention to machine-operated technologies. The shuttles were the most important part of NASA’s space exploration program, and the shutdown of the program means a new focus for NASA. The Space Shuttle is one of the most important pieces of space exploration equipment, but its continued operation is also vital for the future of human space exploration. As the shuttles continue to burn through fuel, NASA will need to find another solution for the launch of astronauts.
After the shuttle program, NASA focused on building the International Space Station, which now supports hundreds of science experiments every year. The International Space Station also visited the Russian space station Mir, where astronauts conducted thousands of hours of basic science experiments. The final shuttle mission, STS-135, was launched from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in July 2011. The orbiter was made up of three main engines and a crew cabin.
NASA’s relationship with the International Space Station
Russia and NASA are partners in the International Space Station, and tensions between the two countries may soon spill over into their partnership. While Russia has recently invaded Ukraine, NASA and Roscosmos are continuing to work together to keep the space station operational. During the recent news conference, NASA managers addressed these tensions. They discussed how to best manage the relationship and maintain safety aboard the space station. After all, their relationship goes beyond space.
Commercial crew transportation is provided to NASA as a commercial service. Three to four astronauts travel to the ISS on each mission, with a fifth passenger optional. Operational flights occur once every six months. Missions overlap by a few days. Missions are a key part of NASA’s overall mission to explore the solar system and improve human health. But while the astronauts may not be getting paid, they are still doing their jobs.