Space Shuttle Astronaut Qualifications
By Cliff Lethbridge
The dawn of the Space Shuttle program brought about a need for a fresh crop of astronaut candidates. While NASA already maintained a number of astronaut hold-overs from previous programs, an ambitious initial forecast of up to 60 Space Shuttle missions per year required more astronauts than were already available.
NASA grouped Space Shuttle astronauts into three categories. These included Pilot Astronauts, Mission Specialist Astronauts and Payload Specialists. Pilot Astronauts would be further divided into Space Shuttle Commanders and Space Shuttle Pilots.
Space Shuttle Commanders were given overall responsibility for onboard operations during each Space Shuttle mission, including management of the crew and vehicle. Space Shuttle Pilots assisted the Commander in the control and operation of the Space Shuttle.
Pilot Astronauts had to possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics. An advanced degree was desirable. At least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command flight time was required for Pilot Astronauts. Flight test experience was desirable.
Ability to pass a NASA Class I space physical was required for Pilot Astronauts, which included a minimum 20/50 uncorrected vision, correctable to 20/20 vision and a maximum blood pressure of 140/90 in a sitting position. Pilot Astronauts required a height of between 5-foot, 4-inches and 6-foot, 4-inches.
Mission Specialist Astronauts, in association with the Space Shuttle Commander and Space Shuttle Pilot, were responsible for the coordination of Space Shuttle operations unique to each individual mission.
Mission Specialist Astronauts were typically involved in crew activity planning, management of consumable supplies, experiment operations and payload operations during each mission. Mission Specialist Astronauts were required to have a detailed knowledge of all Space Shuttle systems.
Mission Specialist Astronauts also needed to have a detailed knowledge of the operational characteristics, mission requirements, objectives, supporting systems and equipment for each payload incorporated in their specific mission.
All spacewalks performed during Space Shuttle missions were performed by Mission Specialist Astronauts, who were also involved in operating the Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (RMS) and in managing and performing a variety of onboard scientific experiments.
Mission Specialist Astronauts were required to possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics. This degree must be followed by at least three years of related professional experience. Advanced degrees may be used to substitute for professional experience.
Ability to pass a NASA Class II space physical was required for Mission Specialist Astronauts, which included a minimum 20/150 uncorrected vision, correctable to 20/20 and a maximum blood pressure of 140/90 in a sitting position. Mission Specialist Astronauts were required to have a height of between 4-foot, 10.5-inches and 6-foot, 4-inches.
As per federal regulation, NASA was not allowed to specify an age range for astronaut candidates. In addition, NASA maintained an affirmative action program to assure that qualified minority and female candidates were selected as astronauts. NASA astronauts were required to be U.S. citizens.
Payload Specialists were not maintained as NASA astronauts, but were consigned by NASA as required for each individual mission. Payload Specialists needed to possess knowledge and expertise unique to a particular payload. They trained along with an assigned crew for each mission, but were released at the conclusion of that mission.
For that reason, specific qualifications for each Payload Specialist varied. Throughout the history of the Space Shuttle program, Payload Specialists have represented the commercial, educational, scientific and international communities.
Astronauts flown essentially as passengers, including U.S. Senator Jake Garn, U.S. Representative Bill Nelson and U.S. Senator John Glenn were assigned to specific missions as Payload Specialists. The NASA use of Payload Specialists declined sharply following the Challenger accident.
Although the Space Shuttle program never achieved a planned frequency of up to 60 missions per year, the existing flight schedule required NASA to draft a large number of astronaut candidates from the outset of the program through its conclusion in 2011.