NASA's New Astronaut Class: It's been a long road, getting from there to here

NASA formally announced its new astronaut class today in a somewhat unusual (but appropriate) venue: a hangar filled with school children, historic aerospace artifacts, and a cultural icon.

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The location was the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center - the new annex of the National Air and Space Museum adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport. The date chosen was Space Day - a long standing national observance of the importance of education and space exploration. The icon? John Glenn.

First on the podium was an energetic young fellow named Justin Houchin who is a spokesman. Citing his goal as wanting to be the 'first teenager in space' an image flashed on a large screen showing him in the cockpit of a high performance jet.

As National Air and Space Museum Director Gen. Jack Dailey began to speak, an image of him as a young boy - perhaps the same age as Justin - flashed on the screen. This would be the case for all of the subsequent speakers. Dailey spoke of his own youth - of waiting in his father's Corsair parked just outside his office until his father got off duty - and how he went on to become a Marine aviator himself.

Former Astronaut Brian Duffy warmed up the crowd telling the kids about the astronauts they'd soon meet: " you are going to hear from people who are really cool. They are going to lead us back to the Moon and then on to Mars - and you are going to be part of that space program." He spoke of being a child 40 years ago, sitting in front of a black and white TV watching a man in a silver spacesuit walk out of a building, climb in a rocket, and leave Earth. He said he can recall thinking " how cool would that be to do something like that." He concluded by advising the young people in attendance "it is OK to have a dream and to work for it. Space Day is about dreams coming true."

Duffy was followed by someone he repeatedly referred to as a source of inspiration as a child: Senator and former astronaut John Glenn. Glenn looked back at his youth and noted that "we did not have a word for what an 'astronaut' was back then". He spoke in depth about education, noting that his father "was not highly educated" but that he constantly pushed Glenn along. Glenn was a pre-med an chemistry major when Pearl Harbor was attacked and his career swerved to that of a pilot - a career which eventually led him to the astronaut corps.

Speaking to the source of influences today he said "I know you all get inspired by Star Trek and Star Wars - but that ain't quite the way it is." He was speaking, of course, about physics and how current spaceships work. Glenn did not intend this as a source of discouragement for the kids, but rather, he encouraged them to stick to their studies such that they could address the needs that the future of space travel would require.

After Glenn, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe spoke. Noting that 'there are heroes all around us" he spoke of the time when he was younger - and heroes like John Glenn began to emerge and how Glenn had since spent a large amount of time working with educational efforts. Being an astronaut is not the only way to explore space, according to O'Keefe. Rather there are many other opportunities - in science and engineering where significant contributions can be made.

Speaking of what lies ahead O'Keefe made brief mention of Project Constellation and the space station, and how the new space initiative would lead America back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond - and that educator astronauts would be part of that activity.

O'Keefe was followed by Astronaut Kent Rominger, head of the astronaut office, who introduced the new astronaut class of 2004:

Mission Specialist-Educator Joseph Acaba, Mission Specialist-Educator Richard Arnold, Pilot Randolph Bresnik (not present owing to an impending wedding in Scotland) Mission Specialist Christopher Cassidy, Pilot James Dutton, Mission Specialist Jose Hernandez, Mission Specialist R. Shane Kimbrough, Mission Specialist Thomas Marshburn, Mission Specialist-Educator Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Mission Specialist Robert Satcher, and Mission Specialist Shannon Walker.

As the ceremony concluded, the theme from the current science fiction series "Enterprise" blared throughout the hangar. In this location, for this event, with those assembled, the words really spoke volumes.

It's been a long road
Getting from there to here
It's been a long time
But my time is finally near

And I will see my dream come alive at last
And I will touch the sky
And they're not going to hold me down no more
And they're not going to change my mind

'Cause I've got faith of the heart
I'm going where my heart will take me
I've got faith to believe
I can do anything

I've got strength of the soul
And no one's gonna bend or break me
I can reach any star
I've got faith, I've got faith
Faith of the heart

A few minutes later the new astronauts met up with the media in the hangar that houses Space Shuttle Enterprise for some photo opportunities. If you recall the sequence from the film "The Right Stuff" there was a funny echo of sorts as photographers shouted out instructions to the astronauts as to how to pose - 'stand', 'kneel', 'look this way', 'smile' etc.

After the obligatory shots I had a chance to talk with one of the selectees, Mission Specialist Thomas Marshburn, M.D., a flight surgeon at NASA JSC. Among the interests listed by Marshburn is that of being "an avid mountain climber". I asked him if his climbing experiences had any effect on his selection. He replied that he wasn't certain that it did - but that it did come up in the course of the extensive interviews he had prior to his selection.

What is going to be interesting as NASA moves ahead with this new space initiative is the type of people that are selected as astronauts. To be certain, pilots will probably always comprise part of each crop of selectees. But as the notion of planning actual expeditions to the Moon and Mars, one would think that people such as Scientist-Astronaut Harrison Schmitt who flew on Apollo 17 would be the model to follow.

As such, one would expect that mountaineering skills would start to work their way into standard astronaut training regimen. Indeed, the similarities between mountaineering and space travel has occurred to at least one astronaut (although a number are 'avid mountaineers' among the astronaut corps such as John Grunsfeld, Scott Parazynski, and John Herrington).

I recently spoke to astronaut Mike Foale just before he left the International Space Station, and asked him about 'exploration'. Referring to the ISS itself, Foale said "It is a base camp, it is a frontier. You only have to be to realize that you are without immediate human help other than the people around you to know that you are on a base camp. I think the techniques we are learning here in terms of servicing, keeping ourselves occupied, resupply, logistics, they are all critical to the goals that we are all agreed upon - to explore further away from the Earth into outer space."

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As I walked out of the hangar I looked back at the astronauts standing beneath Enterprise and was reminded of an image a generation earlier when Enterprise, the next generation of space transportation, was first rolled out to the theme of the original Star Trek series - while the cast of the show looked on. Now she serves as the backdrop for the selection of a new cadre of astronauts who may fly on the next generation of American human space transports, Project Constellation, while the theme of "Enterprise", the series which deals with the first starship to carry that name, plays in the background.

As such Enterprise has come full circle - starting off in the 20th century and arriving in the 21st - with stops in the 22nd and 23rd centuries along the way.


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