Private Astronauts for Hire?

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(NASA chief Charlie Bolden, in the control room during shuttle Endeavour's launch. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA.)

Will the next generation of astronauts be sporting corporate

logos on their spacesuits?  Anything’s possible, as the Obama administration seeks to

recast NASA’s manned space program.

Obama’s plan calls for private companies to take over the

job of ferrying crew to the International Space Station. At some point, astronauts

may not even be employees of NASA.

"That's a discussion we need to have," said NASA

administrator Charlie Bolden. "When we start using commercial capabilities

to get people to low-Earth orbit, does that mean (NASA) says 'I want to rent a

spacecraft to take a crew of six to the International Space Station?' Or 'I

want to rent a crew to go to ISS to do six months of work?' There's a distinct

difference between that operational mode. And that's the discussion we need to

have."

Currently, NASA has 88 astronauts in its corps and another

24 assigned as managers throughout the agency.

“There is a small contingent of people on the outside who

really have a great disdain for astronauts,” added Bolden, himself a former

astronaut. “They feel because there is this elite astronaut corps, that we have

stopped others from being able to go into space. So if they can just get rid of

the elite astronaut corps, then everybody else can go fly.”

Bolden said it’d be a mistake to think that you could pick “Joe

Schmuck” off the street, send him to Johnson Space Center or Kennedy Space

Center for six weeks of training, and end up with someone as competent and

skilled as chief astronaut Peggy Whitson, a former space station commander.

“Ain’t going to happen,” said Bolden. "We need to have

the discussion of how important is it to have a career astronaut contingent as

opposed to none.”

“Our international partners have a lot to say about that,”

Bolden added, “They happen to like the elite astronaut corps.”