According to NASA’s inspector general, the astronaut corps’ size may quickly fall under the minimum level required to support Artemis missions and space station, as well as other activities.
NASA’s Office of Inspector General established in a report released on January 11 that the agency’s astronaut corps, which currently has 44 active astronauts, might fall short of the “minimum manifest requirement” needed to adequately support the International Space Station (ISS) and Artemis missions as early as this year as space explorers leave the agency. The corps, that had roughly 150 astronauts at its height in 2000, is currently at its smallest level since the 1970s.
The NASA astronaut office conducted a “sizing study” in 2019 and found that the corps will fall short of the minimum manifest criteria in 2022 and 2023 fiscal years, according to the report. Following that analysis, the agency decided to hire a new class of space explorers, which was announced on December 6 and began their two-year training this month.
However, by the moment those new astronauts get eligible for flight postings in 2024, NASA is going to be dealing with both existing astronaut attrition and demand for extra astronauts for the Artemis missions. “As a consequence, the Agency might not have a sufficient number of additional astronauts available for unplanned attrition and crew reassignments, or ground tasks such as program development, filling Astronaut Office leadership and liaison positions, and serving as Agency spokespeople,” according to the report.
One factor contributing to the shortage is NASA’s usage of 15% “safety margin” in estimating the required number of astronauts to accommodate for unexpected attrition, medical problems, and other variables. Before the year 2014, the safety factor was 25%, and according to the report, “it is unclear why the margin shifted due to the lack of documentation.”
Other issues include the prospect of increasing attrition rates among the crew, particularly as the ISS nears the end of its mission later this decade. Astronauts who work in program development are in high demand as well. With Artemis lunar missions, a changing set of skills among astronauts may be needed, according to the paper. NASA’s astronauts lack “complete demographic information,” Increasing the difficulty of determining how well the corps represents the agency’s diversity objectives.
The report also mentions the importance of lunar mission training. The Artemis 2 and 3 missions, that are scheduled to fly in 2024 and 2025, respectively, have yet to be named. Despite the fact that those flights are still at least 2 years away, NASA “may be vastly underestimating the time available to construct and implement the needed training strategy and regimen” for them. It was said that early in ISS program, mission training required up to 5 years before being streamlined to 2 years for existing missions.
Beyond the new class of astronauts who have just begun training, the report did not particularly recommend that NASA raise the number of the astronaut corps. It did, however, urge that NASA review the 15% safety margin utilized to determine the size of the corps, as well as recommendations for improved astronaut demographic data gathering and additional training advice. In a comment contained in the study, NASA stated that it agreed with the recommendations.