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Astronauts needed? Report finds NASA's corps is being spread too thin

The nation's top space agency is working with the smallest group of astronauts it's seen in the last 20 years.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Editor's Note: The video in the player above is from 2020 when the first group of Artemis astronauts was announced.

NASA has big plans for its future — especially with its push to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon. But does the nation's top space agency have enough staffing to get there?

Not according to a recent report from the NASA Office of Inspector General which expressed concerns about NASA's ability to "ensure the astronaut corps is aligned to meet current and future mission needs." 

In the Jan. 11, 2022, "NASA's Management of Its Astronaut Corps" report, the office detailed its findings across 41-pages. 

The main challenge facing NASA’s Flight Operations Directorate and NASA’s Astronaut Office centers around the management and size of the agency's current astronaut corps. 

"After reaching its peak of nearly 150 astronauts in 2000, the size of the corps diminished with the end of Space Shuttle missions in 2011 and now stands at 44, one of the smallest cadres of astronauts in the past 20 years," the report reads.

At 44 astronauts, NASA puts itself in a sticky situation when it comes to meeting the requirements of its upcoming manifests, executing space flight missions and meeting its goal of deep space travel, according to the report.

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"The processes NASA uses to size, train, and assign astronauts to specific missions are primarily calibrated toward meeting the current needs of the ISS," the report reads.

The assessment of NASA's astronaut corps found it's designed to ensure that a sufficient number of astronauts are available to maintain a "planned crew" of three to four astronauts on the International Space Station for the next five years.

Beyond that marker, the NASA Office of Inspector General says the agency is projected to fall below its "targeted size or minimum manifest requirement" in both 2022 and 2023 due to additional space flight manifest needs.

Officials say what's "more concerning" is that the Astronaut Office "calculated that the corps size would exactly equal the number of flight manifest seats" NASA is projected to need this year. 

That means the agency risks not having a sufficient number of astronauts in the reserve for things like unanticipated attrition, crew reassignments, or ground roles, according to the report.

"In light of the expanding space flight opportunities anticipated for the Artemis missions, the corps might be at risk of being misaligned in the future, resulting in disruptive crew reorganizations or mission delays," the report states.

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Other pressing problems, pointed out by the report, include the way astronaut skillset data is collected and the progress for establishing how Artemis astronauts will be trained.

Officials completing the report say they found astronaut skillset data is not being consistently collected, comprehensively organized, or regularly monitored and updated. 

"The Chief and Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office said they can use various tracking systems, if needed, but given the small number of astronauts in the corps they primarily rely on their own informal knowledge to inform skillset decisions," the report states.

The approach is one the office finds won't be effective given the astronaut corps needed expansion to meet future mission requirements and manifest needs. 

The report also takes issue with what appears to be a lack of demographic information in the Astronaut Office's personnel database that is specific to the astronaut corps.

"This poses a challenge to assessing whether NASA is meeting Agency and Administration diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility objectives," officials determined in the report.

Looking forward, while the process of developing how Artemis astronauts will be trained is still in the works, those conducting the evaluation say that time is ticking. 

"...the Agency could be overestimating the time available to develop and implement the necessary training framework and regimen across key Artemis systems," the report reads. 

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To help avoid hitting the roadblocks and potential hiccups mentioned above, the NASA Office of Inspector General offered up four recommendations to the nation's top space agency's management:

  • To further maintain its collection, summary and monitoring of detailed astronaut data to better support the corps.
  • Use the data to help inform astronaut recruiting and training to meet NASA's strategic goals.
  • Ensure the training process for future Artemis missions is developed with "sufficient" time for both implementation and revision.
  • Coordination with Artemis program offices to "complete the development and chartering of the framework" of related boards and panels to ensure alignment with needs.

"As NASA enters a new era of human space flight, including returning to the Moon and eventually landing humans on Mars, effective management of its astronaut corps—the people who fly its space flight missions—is critical to the Agency’s success," the report reads. 

To complete its evaluation, the NASA Office of Inspector General interviewed NASA officials across several departments and reviewed documentation currently guiding NASA's astronaut corps management and human space flight operations. 

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