By NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC
updated 4/10/2004 3:53:30 PM ET 2004-04-10T19:53:30
MSNBC.COM EXCLUSIVE

NASA has completed its selection of the next class of astronaut candidates, and is now telephoning the selectees to confirm their interest in moving to Houston, sources familiar with the selection process have told MSNBC.com.

NASA spokesman James Hartsfield confirmed Friday that a selection process was under way but could not provide any specifics about the schedule for selection or public disclosure.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the sources said 14 individuals will be asked to report to Houston as astronaut candidates in June and begin two years of formal training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in August.

The prospective class of 2004 includes two pilots, six mission specialists, and three educators who will go through mission specialist training. There also will be three candidates from the Japanese Space Agency.

The three Japanese astronauts have previously been identified as Dr. Satoshi Furukawa, 40, a surgeon; Akihiko Hoshide, 35, an aerospace engineer; and Naoko Sumino, 33, an aerospace engineer. They were selected in 1999 and already have undergone cosmonaut training in Russia.

Dozens wait for first flight
This is the 19th group of astronauts picked by NASA since 1959. NASA’s last astronaut selection was made in 2000, when 17 people were picked. Those 17, as well as all 25 members of the class of 1998, have completed their training and are awaiting their first flights.

Of the 35 astronaut candidates selected in 1996, eight are still awaiting flight assignment. Three others died in the Columbia tragedy in February 2003. Another member of the class of 1996, Mike Fincke, will be launched to the international space station aboard a Russian Soyuz craft later this month.

NASA's astronaut statistics show that the space agency currently has 101 active pilots and mission specialists, along with an additional 43 "management astronauts," many of whom can return to flight status if needed. Half of the active astronauts and all of the management astronauts are veterans of at least one (and in some cases as many as seven) spaceflights.

Veterans provide the backbone of every new space crew. Even at the height of shuttle launch operations, no more than 10 to 12 rookies were launched per year. If shuttle flights resume in 2005, as now expected, the earliest that any member of the new 2004 class could expect to fly is 2010 or 2011, when the shuttle is supposed to be phased out.

Gap in selection
Two years ago, NASA had began recruiting a class of 2002, but the agency decided it already had enough astronauts and terminated the process in April 2002. Applicants were sent an explanatory postcard: “Because of recent decisions concerning resources and schedules for the International Space Station and Space Shuttle Programs, we have determined that it will not be necessary to select a new class of Astronaut Candidates for 2002. Our next class will be delayed until no sooner than 2003.”

In May 2003, NASA began accepting applications for mission specialist and pilot astronaut candidates for the class of 2004. The application deadline was July 1, 2003. 

“Following an intensive six-month period of evaluation and interviews, the final selections will be announced in early 2004,” the original press release stated. “Astronaut candidates will report to the Johnson Space Center during the summer of 2004 to begin the basic training program to prepare them for future spaceflight assignments.”

NASA explicitly announced its intention that “the Astronaut Candidate Class of 2004 also will include educator astronauts, teachers who will join NASA's astronaut corps and encourage students to pursue studies in math and science.”  The agency processed more than 1,100 applications for the Educator Astronaut Program.

Too many astronauts?
Last summer, NASA was criticized in Congress for selecting too many astronauts. Even before the Columbia tragedy, astronauts often waited years for their first missions, and some never flew a second time. In a report prepared before Columbia's loss but released after the tragedy, NASA’s own assistant inspector general for auditing criticized NASA’s management of its astronaut corps.

The report said the inspector general's office “considered whether the NASA astronaut corps was being used effectively, was supportive of the agency's current and future mission, and was managed in accordance with governing policies and procedures.”

Its conclusions were negative. “We found that overly optimistic predictions of future flight rates and the need to staff engineering positions at Johnson Space Center” were hiring factors that led to the selection of too many astronauts. “As a result, costs for the astronaut program were higher than necessary and individuals trained to be astronauts were not all being used in a manner commensurate with their expensive training.”

The inspector general's office offered “to assist the agency in assuring that the size of the corps is more closely aligned with mission and program needs,” and it recommended that NASA establish formal guidelines for “certain aspects of the astronaut candidate selection process, conduct more realistic analyses of astronaut corps size needs, document reasons for deviating from those analyses, and establish formal criteria for astronaut technical assignments.”

NASA officials, all former astronauts, disputed these recommendations and said they would set their own standards for the size and makeup of the astronaut corps.

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