NASA announces new astronauts as safety panel recommends strategic planning for space exploration

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WASHINGTON — NASA announced a new class of astronauts that will be eligible for missions to the moon on the same day the agency’s safety advisers called for strategic planning to ensure success in those exploration efforts.

In a ceremony at Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston Dec. 6, the agency introduced the 10 members of the astronaut class of 2021. The six men and four women, ranging in age from 32 to 45, include military pilots, engineers and a flight surgeon who previously worked for both NASA and SpaceX.

The astronaut candidates will start two years of training in January, joined by two Emirati astronauts selected by the U.A.E.’s space program in April. After that, they will be eligible for flight assignments. The first two members of the previous astronaut class, selected in mid-2017, to go to space are Kayla Barron and Raja Chari, who are on the International Space Station as part of the Crew-3 mission that launched Nov. 10.

“Today we welcome 10 new explorers, 10 members of the Artemis Generation,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson at the ceremony. “We’re going back to the moon and we’re continuing on to Mars.”

While agency officials played up the roles those new astronauts could play in future exploration plans, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) offered a cautionary note. In a meeting a few hours earlier, the panel recommended changes in how NASA managed its exploration programs.

“Past accomplishments do not guarantee future successes,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel, during a short teleconference held outside of its usual quarterly schedule of public meetings. “For NASA to continue its record of accomplishment in the decades ahead, it will require NASA to proactively plan for and manage its operations in the presence of numerous challenges and constraints.”

Among those challenges and constraints, she said, include NASA’s evolving relationship with industry, increased complexity of missions and greater risk of missions to the moon and Mars, and cooperation with international partners.

She also cited the need for “constancy of purpose” with political stakeholders and improved management of exploration programs. An example she gave was the cancellation of the Constellation program and NASA’s short-lived efforts afterward to develop human missions to near Earth asteroids. “When the asteroid objective lost traction within a few years, it created a ripple of uncertainty and a loss of strong mission focus in the workforce that still echoes today.”

Sanders presented three recommendations that ASAP is making to NASA on the issue. One calls for the agency to develop “a strategic vision for the future of space exploration and operations” that extends for at least 20 years. That vision, which she said should include alternative scenarios, would describe how NASA will work with commercial and international partners, assess its workforce and infrastructure needs, and criteria for deciding whether to make, manage or buy capabilities.

“All aspects of the strategic vision and its implementation should be clearly and unambiguously communicated throughout the workforce of the agency,” she said.

A second recommendation is that NASA establish a “board of directors” comprised of the directors of its field centers and other key officials. The role of the board, she said, would be on “providing benefit to the agency’s mission as a cohesive whole and not to the individual components of the agency,” including aligning roles among the various centers.

The third recommendation is that Artemis be managed as an integrated program, rather than a collection of programs, such as the Space Launch System, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems. Artemis, in that approach, would be led by a single program manager “endowed with authority, responsibility and accountability.”

Sanders said ASAP will elaborate on its recommendations in the panel’s annual report, to be published in early 2022. No other members of the committee spoke during the brief meeting.

NASA did not comment on panel’s recommendations, but at the astronaut introduction event, one official suggested the agency was already working on implementing the recommendation regarding long-term planning.

“We’re not going to rest on the laurels of the last decade,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. She said the agency’s senior leadership “is very focused on building a blueprint for how we will explore, with humans, not just to the moon, not just on to Mars, but figuring out the blueprint for how we’re going to go into the solar system. That is what we are focused on right now.”

“We’re going to practice on the moon, we’re going to learn, and we’re going to push out,” she told the agency’s newest astronauts. “And that will be your generation.”