For NASA, 'The Right Stuff' takes on a softer tone

Agency pushes aside image of ridged shuttle pilot.

ByTraci Watson, USA TODAY

— -- Social skills weren't part of the job description for America's first astronauts.

Piloting the one-man Mercury capsule was a dangerous new endeavor. A sure touch on the stick and a willingness to risk death trumped being a nice, chatty guy. And some of the first space fliers weren't.

Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard was known as the "Ice Commander" for his chilly glare. Colleagues Deke Slayton and Gus Grissom thought they'd had "a deep talk" if they exchanged 40 sentences during a cross-country flight, Tom Wolfe wrote in his book The Right Stuff.

Now that icon — the astronaut as a grim-faced, laconic test pilot — is being nudged aside.

NASA is taking applications for a new crop of astronauts, and for the first time in decades, its ranks will not include anyone whose sole job will be to pilot spacecraft. With the shuttle retiring in 2010 and its replacement on the drawing board, there will be nothing to pilot.

The first group of astronauts was the Mercury Seven, chosen in 1959. The next class, the 20th, will include people with experience as pilots in the military, but it won't have much resemblance to the inaugural gang. Now NASA is looking for those who can play well with others in the close quarters of the International Space Station.

"The old concept of The Right Stuff— the rugged test pilot, the individualist — is just not going to work," says Jason Kring, who studies human-spacecraft interaction at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.

The newcomers' only ticket to orbit until at least 2015 will be to sign up for a long stay on the space station. They'll get there on Russian spaceships led by cosmonauts.

At the station, astronauts' main duties are to conduct experiments, keep the station running and stay in their crewmates' good graces. For that, NASA needs an affable, tolerant guy or gal who is more researcher than jet jockey.

The shuttle is commanded only by test pilots, but the station is captained mostly by engineers and scientists. Current station commander Peggy Whitson is a biochemist. The spaceship that will replace the shuttle is likely to be commanded by scientists and test pilots.

Recent station crewmembers include astronaut Clay Anderson, a wisecracking engineer who wept openly over leaving the station in November, and Sunita Williams, an easygoing sports buff and jock who loves to talk about the Boston Red Sox and her dog.

"You need to be more of a people person" to serve on the station, says astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who has flown on the space shuttle and commanded the station. "You can't just be steely-eyed, no matter how competent."

The model space-station astronaut plays many roles that can't be learned at a fighter jet's controls:

•Diplomat. The station is operated jointly by the United States and Russia, soon to be joined by Europe and Japan. International relations can get rocky, and the station crew must work together while their bosses on Earth argue. "That's probably the biggest stress" on the crew, says Kenneth Bowersox, a former astronaut who commanded the station in 2002-03 and the shuttle in 1995 and 1997.

•Linguist. The main languages on the station are English and Russian. That's also true on the Russian spaceships.

•Scientist. Dozens of experiments are conducted on the station. The crew keeps them running.

•Repair technician. The station is a complex machine, and things break. Sometimes that means just getting out the wrench. Sometimes that means going on a spacewalk to fix a broken motor, as the crew did last week.

'The jokes get stale'

Just as important, station residents need to understand humans at least as well as they understand machines. Crews now include three people, usually two Russians and an American or one Russian and two Americans. Next year, the crew will swell to six and begin including astronauts from Japan and Europe.

Coping skills are crucial on a station mission, which lasts three to six months, compared with 11 to 15 days for a shuttle mission.

"Anybody can get along with anybody for a couple of weeks," says psychiatry professor Nick Kanas of the University of California, San Francisco, who studies astronaut behavior. After a month or two, "being with somebody for that long starts to wear on you. The jokes get stale. You have to learn new ways of interacting."

Kanas recalls the story of Russian cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev, who in 1982 spent seven months on a Russian space station with one colleague. At first the two chatted amiably, but as the months wore on, silence took hold. Eventually, they rarely spoke.

Just because an astronaut is hot stuff on a shuttle flight doesn't mean he or she will thrive on the station, say many of those who have flown on both spacecraft.

Before flying a shuttle mission, "you're taught that … you have to (give) 110% all the time," Bowersox says. "That's a great mind-set for a shuttle flight. But it's a terrible mind-set for six months."

An astronaut unprepared or ill-suited for a long stay in space is likely to be miserable. Astronaut John Blaha enjoyed his time on the shuttle, but when he flew on the Russian station Mir in 1996-97 he felt so isolated from Earth and his Russian crewmates that he became clinically depressed, he told reporters at the time.

"The first month I was on orbit … I kept longing for things that I loved here," Blaha told reporters a few days after returning to Earth.

Astronauts are the ultimate Type A personalities. That can backfire during a long stay in space, says Lawrence Palinkas of the University of Southern California's School of Social Work, who studies people working in extreme environments.

Being highly demanding of yourself and others, "which is often the case with shuttle participants, (is) not necessarily the kind of quality that is optimal during a long-duration mission," Palinkas says.

In a survey in the 1990s, astronauts gave the highest accolades not to their most goal-oriented crewmates but to those with technical expertise and sensitivity — embodying Neil Armstrong plus Tom Hanks.

NASA strives to pick collegial astronauts, but officials admit they could do better at assessing personalities. Now-disgraced former astronaut Lisa Nowak, for example, who is accused of attacking a romantic rival in 2007, was regarded by crewmates as "selfish" and "not a good team player," according to statements taken by NASA investigators after Nowak's arrest.

Space-agency brass hope to do a better job with the next batch of Americans to fly in space, says Brent Jett, chief of flight crew operations. Officials are working on ways to size up not just candidates' résumés but "how people deal with situations outside their comfort zone," he says.

A more complex selection process

To get to know the applicants better, NASA will have them make two trips to Houston, home of the astronaut corps and the selection panel. Previous applicants made only one.

This year's top candidates also will be subjected, for the first time, to brain MRIs and a special cardiac CT scan to find evidence of heart disease and aneurysms. Most of those hired will spend months on the station, and NASA doesn't want to have to evacuate someone from orbit for a medical emergency.

NASA put out the call for new astronauts, the first to be hired since 2004, in September. Applicants must send in professional and medical information by July 1. Finalists will be interviewed this winter; those who make it will be announced in May 2009.

The lucky few who gain admission, probably only a dozen or so out of what is likely to be a pool of 3,000 or more, may not feel so lucky once they start work.

Astronauts assigned to a shuttle mission train for a year and a half, then spend two weeks or so in space. Crews assigned to a station mission train for four to five years, though NASA hopes to reduce that. They then spend up to seven months in space.

Half the training is overseas, in countries including Russia and Japan, which is especially hard on trainees with families.

The training regimen forced astronaut Gregory Chamitoff, who will fly to the station in April for a five-month stint, to miss the first and second birthdays of his now 3-year-old twins. "I've had to do (the training) while they were growing up, having spent almost half the time away from them," he says.

An assignment on the station is "probably the most difficult profession in manned space flight," says Gary Beven, NASA's chief of behavioral medicine. It "is like living in your office … and not being able to get out for six months." For this, the new astronauts will make $60,000 to $130,000 per year.

If rookies such as Chamitoff, 45, tough it out long enough, they may get the ultimate prize: a flight on NASA's new spaceship, scheduled to carry humans for the first time in 2015, or even a walk on the moon, slated for 2019.

Engineers are trying to make the new ship, called Orion, scientist-proof. It's being designed to be simple enough to be commanded by those who spent their previous careers in the lab, not the cockpit. By contrast, the shuttle is so complex that only astronauts who have graduated from military test-pilot schools are allowed to fly it.

The shuttle, at least, is fun to fly. The Orion won't present nearly the same challenge to hotshot pilots. Launches and landings will be computer-controlled, and docking with the station eventually will be automated, too. In many ways the astronauts will be "Spam in a Can," the derogatory term test pilots outside NASA used to refer to the Mercury astronauts because of their lack of control over their capsules.

That doesn't deter people such as Randy Bresnik, a Marine test pilot who joined the astronaut corps in 2004. Despite his right-stuff credentials as a test pilot for the Navy's F/A-18 fighter jet, he's a new breed of astronaut. Soft-spoken and quick with a joke, he says he'd be happy to be a mechanic and laboratory technician on the space station.

It would be "a test pilot's dream" to fly the Orion, Bresnik says. But he wants NASA to "use (his skills) however you see fit. … There is no bad spaceflight."

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