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18 Jan, 2022 20:41

NASA missions under threat because of astronaut shortage

The US space agency has been warned that the size of its astronaut corps might be too small to meet its future needs
NASA missions under threat because of astronaut shortage

NASA has enough astronauts to meet “the current needs” of International Space Station missions but might soon discover that it lacks a “sufficient number of additional astronauts” for future projects.

According to NASA's Office of Inspector General report, the astronaut corps is projected to fall below its targeted size or “minimum manifest requirement” in 2022 and 2023 due to astronauts retiring and “additional space flight manifest needs.” Currently 44 astronauts strong, the corps is named "one of the smallest cadres of astronauts in the past 20 years,” and that’s while NASA is preparing for its Artemis moon exploration missions.

The analysis, conducted by the Audit Office, shows that the number of astronauts in the 2022 fiscal year would “exactly equal the number of flight manifest seats” NASA will need.

As a result, the Agency may not have a sufficient number of additional astronauts available for unanticipated attrition and crew reassignments or ground roles such as engaging in program development, staffing Astronaut Office leadership and liaison positions, and serving as spokespeople for the Agency,” the report warns.

With a planned increase in the number of space flights in the framework of Artemis missions, the staff shortages at NASA might result in “disruptive crew reorganizations or mission delays,” the auditors said.

Potential personnel shortages have already prompted the space agency to select ten new astronaut recruits for future missions. Their two-year training course started in January.

However, an astronaut shortage wasn’t the only issue highlighted by the auditors. NASA might also face a shortage in skills. The report states that “the composition of skill sets within the corps may need to be augmented to ensure sufficient capacity to execute Artemis missions,” noting that “the astronaut skillset data is not consistently collected, comprehensively organized, or regularly monitored or updated.

Therefore, the Office of Inspector General has come up with four recommendations on how to “better support the sizing and alignment of the astronaut corps, and to help inform recruiting and training of astronauts to fulfill NASA’s strategic goals.” 

The recommendations include improvements in monitoring detailed astronaut data, planning training processes, and developing specific training regimens “to align with Artemis mission needs.”

NASA’s management has accepted all of the recommendations.

Recent years have seen the revival of the moon exploration race. NASA is getting ready for the maiden launch of its moon rocket in March – the Space Launch System with an uncrewed Orion capsule – and aims to resume human landings in 2024 and 2025. 

The Russian space agency Roscosmos’ Luna 25 lander, previously known as Luna-Glob, is scheduled to launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in July 2022 on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket with a Fregat upper stage. China has successfully launched a series of lunar missions in recent years, while India is planning to launch the Chandrayaan-3 lander mission this year.