Grounded: the Nasa recruits deprived of their place in space

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The Independent Online

Astronauts at Nasa are beginning to share with the public the bitter experience of arriving at check-in to discover there is no room on the flight.

The agency, a government report has concluded, has too many space travellers and not enough seats on its shuttles.

Nasa has 116 astronauts on its payroll, all of whom have gone through extensive and expensive training at the Johnson Space Centre in Texas. They all have the right stuff, but 53 have never left the Earth's atmosphere.

Not before 2010 at the earliest will all of them have donned their space suits for real, the report says. It was compiled by the agency's inspector general. The picture, in reality, may be worse than the report suggests. It was written several months ago with the intention of publication in February. The inspector general's office delayed the document's release after the Columbia shuttle disaster that same month, which destroyed one of Nasa's fleet of four shuttles when it exploded on re-entry and left seven astronauts dead.

The accident means that the three remaining shuttles are grounded at least until April next year, adding to the frustration of the astronauts, many of whom find themselves attending meetings or assigned to engineering jobs at the Space Centre to fill their time.

The glut of flyers derives from years of excessive optimism at Nasa on the number of shuttle flights it expected to launch. In the late Nineties, when the agency was routinely recruiting up to 35 astronauts a year for training, it projected seven or eight launches annually. In reality, shuttles have been flying into orbit five or six times a year. And for the time being, not at all.

Apart from that, the manning of the International Space Station has been sharply curtailed. Nasa had originally planned for a crew of six or seven aboard the space station, but that number was dropped to only three. Since the Columbia crash, it has been cut to two astronauts.

Curtis Brown, a retired astronaut, told the Los Angeles Times: "I think it is a terrible loss to the individuals and to our society. The pilots and test pilots are the top of the top and now they are being used to go to meetings. I don't know how they can go to work every day, because the prime of their careers are passing them by."

The report did not specifically call for lay-offs among the astronauts. But Nasa has vowed to study its recruitment policies and cut its training programmes. The astronaut class of 2000 had 17 members, and no new astronauts were chosen in 2001, 2002 or 2003, the agency said. In the light of the criticisms, the class of 2004 might now be cancelled.

The agency is repeatedly coming under scrutiny for over-spending. This is the first time that it has been accused of hiring too many flyers. While they are generally paid a salary of $130,000 (£81,000) a year, that represents only a fraction of the cost of training them. At least 28 months are needed to train a shuttle astronaut and at least three and a half years to prepare one for duty aboard the space station.

The report said: "Although Johnson [the space centre] was unable to determine the full cost of the astronaut corps using the cost accounting system available in 2002, astronauts clearly cost more than other civil servants. We found that some astronauts worked in technical assignments that did not require astronauts and could have been performed by less expensive engineers."

Nasa receives thousands of applications every year from would-be space explorers. Currently, the agency is planning to select 12 candidates for the training programme starting next year, including several teachers.However, even if the class survives cancellation, none of the new recruits would be able to visit space before 2009, at the earliest.