Just before sunrise on July 21, 2011, Chris Ferguson, the commander of the 135th and final space shuttle mission, returned to Earth for the last time, landing his shuttle, Atlantis, on a 300-foot-wide stretch of concrete at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The next day, he kicked off a four-month-long tour as the de facto spokesperson of the U.S. space program by rallying a flag-waving crowd of a thousand back home at Houston's Ellington Field. "The dream," he told them, "is still alive and will remain alive." In New York, he had dinner with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and smiled through the gibes on Letterman and Colbert. In Philadelphia, his hometown, Ferguson stood at the 50-yard line for the coin toss before a Monday Night Football game. In Washington, he met with President Obama in the Oval Office. Along the way, Ferguson dutifully played the role of feel-good American hero: glad-handing crowds, signing autographs, and meeting with recently laid-off shuttle workers to give them "a little bit of going-away 'thank you, atta boy.'" The tour came to an end just before Thanksgiving. Three weeks later, he quit NASA.
Ferguson, 50, looks every bit the classic astronaut – trim and clean-cut, with a gray-blond buzz and big blue saucer eyes – and although he's too modest to admit it, he has fighter-jock bona fides every bit as impressive as those of the fabled Mercury Seven. Like Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn, Ferguson spent his twenties and early thirties ascending the pyramid of the Right Stuff. He pushed F-14D Tomcats to the outside of their envelopes at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland, and later flew sorties off the USS Nimitz to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq. In 1998, Ferguson joined NASA; over the next 13 years, he spent thousands of hours screaming across the southern United States in T-38 trainer jets and flew three shuttle missions.
When NASA was gearing up to select America's first astronauts in 1958, administrators discussed drawing from a wide range of professionals, among them balloonists, scuba divers, and Arctic explorers. But President Dwight Eisenhower had insisted that only test pilots be considered. As a result, the astronaut corps took on the characteristics of a military flying organization – big egos, barracks humor, and impeccable execution. Even as the corps evolved during the shuttle era to include scientists, engineers, and doctors, much of the old culture remained intact. The chief of the astronaut office was always a pilot, shuttle commanders were always pilots, and logging hours in the T-38s – either as a pilot or a backseat flight engineer – was a requirement of the job.
But by the time Ferguson touched down in the Atlantis last July, this breed of astronaut was vanishing rapidly. The United States has retired its only manned spacecraft – the shuttle – and the next generation of vehicles is years, maybe even a decade, away from flying. For now, the only way for Americans to get into orbit is on a Russian Soyuz. And the only mission is a six-month stay on the International Space Station (ISS). The massive reduction in flight opportunities and the lack of a U.S. spacecraft have spurred an unprecedented exodus from the astronaut corps. Six months before President Obama canceled the Constellation program – the shuttle successor whose goal was to put Americans back on the moon by 2020 – there were 96 active NASA astronauts. Currently, there are 54, with only nine former shuttle pilots among them. None of the last five shuttle commanders remain at NASA. "Astronauts like to fly things," says Wayne Hale, a former manager of the shuttle program. "They're not going to sit around an organization just to mark time."
Which is why when I met Ferguson this past March, it was not at NASA but at the headquarters of Boeing's Space Exploration division in Houston, where he was still getting used to the first real office job of his life. "The days are longer here," he said over lunch in the company's nearly empty cafeteria. "It's back-to-back meetings, it's travel, it's commercial airports, it's long nights of email." Then he added, a little wistfully: "It was kind of hard giving up the T-38s, but I tell everyone that I have an office that faces the airfield, so at least I get to watch the airplanes I used to fly from across the runway. It's not as gratifying, but, hey, at least you get to look at airplanes."
Johnson Space Center, home of the astronaut corps, sits amid the suburban sprawl of southeast Houston, across the road from a Jet Ski–filled saltwater inlet called Clear Lake and four miles south of Ferguson's new office at Boeing. Johnson hasn't changed much since the Mercury Seven arrived in the summer of 1962 – the squat beige buildings have been there from the outset, and the scrupulously anonymous numbered streets and single-lettered avenues are relics of an era when bland efficiency (and Cold War paranoia) was synonymous with progress.
The changes outside Johnson's gates have been easier to spot. When the shuttle started to fly, in 1981, the area around the center still included cattle pastures and rice fields. Astronaut life reflected the quaint surroundings. When these brave men weren't blasting off into the heavens, they would gather at the local softball fields to play a couple of games, or head over to the Outpost Tavern for a bucket or two of Lone Star.
"It's a totally different feel now," Jerry Ross, a 30-year veteran of the corps (and former Air Force flight engineer) who retired in January, told me. "People are gone so long to train for the ISS in Russia and Europe and Japan and Canada that you don't see them for months at a time. You don't get that close camaraderie that we used to have. It tends to be a little more individualistic."
Doug Hurley, the pilot on the Atlantis' final flight, seems, even more than Ferguson, a throwback to NASA's rough-and-tumble past. Hurley is a flat-topped Marine Corps colonel who drives a pewter F-150 pickup. He lists his interests on his official bio as "hunting, cycling, and attending as many NASCAR races as possible," and he describes himself as "just this guy from upstate New York who loved to fly airplanes."
But when I met Hurley inside Johnson Space Center's Building 9, the hangar where NASA houses many of its spacecraft-training mock-ups, the old era was in the process of being dismantled. Our first stop was the middeck of one of the building's three space shuttle replicas, where eight months earlier the Atlantis' crew members had performed some of their final training exercises. The vehicle remained just as they'd left it – a wall of 35 metal drawers still had colored stickers on it, marking the possessions of each crew member, and four canvas sleeping sacks hung from the walls. As we left the cabin, Hurley motioned to the shuttles and said, "I think they've managed to give away all of them to somebody. They're headed to universities and museums, so they're going to great use. But put another way, it's obviously pretty sad."
Over the course of its three decades, the space shuttle was often maligned as a deadly budget sinkhole – a vehicle that had capped America's spaceflight ambitions at low Earth orbit and killed two of its crews. But every astronaut I spoke with was quick to defend the shuttle as the most capable spacecraft ever built, and the only one in history that really needed a pilot. In 1959, when Chuck Yeager was asked by reporters if he regretted not being selected for NASA's first astronaut class, he snorted, "There won't be any flying to do... a monkey's gonna make the first flight." And it was true: The pilot of America's first "manned" spaceflight was not Alan Shepard but a chimpanzee named Ham. When the majestic, winged space shuttle made its first flight 20 years after Ham's mission, though, NASA didn't select a chimpanzee as its commander; it chose its most experienced pilot – John Young, the commander of Apollo 16 and a famed Navy aviator. After Young and his copilot, Bob Crippen, landed the shuttle Columbia safely back at Edwards Air Force Base (the same high desert grounds above which Yeager had broken the sound barrier), Young descended the steps and danced a jig. It was the first and only manned maiden flight of a space vehicle, and it was far from guaranteed to succeed. NASA recently recalculated the chances of mission failure (i.e., death) at one in 12.
When Ferguson, Hurley, and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus made the final shuttle flight 30 years later, the mission was safer and less glamorous, but it still held allure for the kind of astronaut trained to value operational expertise above all else. Forty-five seconds after launch, as the Atlantis roared toward Mach 25, a warning siren blared out across the flight deck, signaling a potential leak. For a moment it looked like the last crew might have to execute a shuttle first: a return-to-launch-site abort, which Hurley described to me with gusto as an almost kamikaze maneuver that would force the spacecraft to fly backward through the rocket plume until it had dissipated enough energy and fuel to land safely back at Cape Canaveral. "The common verbiage is that the abort is certified," Hurley said, meaning NASA's engineers had declared it safe, "[but] John Young would always say, 'It's certified to kill you.' Of course, if they ever had tried to see if it actually worked, all of us test pilots would have said, 'I'm doing it.'"
The siren turned out to be a false alarm, and the Atlantis proceeded to the ISS to deliver five tons of cargo – a year's worth of supplies. Hurley described the mission, not without pride, as "blue-collar, brunt-force hard work."
Now that NASA has retired the shuttle and American astronauts depend on the Russian Soyuz to get to the ISS, the old guard like Ferguson and Hurley have found their most well-honed skills to be increasingly obsolete. With the launch of the first ISS module in 1998, the identity of the corps underwent a significant change. The station took on the role of a research facility – with many of its experiments measuring the ways in which terrestrial life, from humans to bacteria, responds to extended exposure to a microgravity environment. Aboard the ISS, astronauts' science skills and foreign-language mastery (it was an international venture, after all) became more important than their ability to push high-performance jets to the limit of their capabilities.
What's more, the Soyuz requires almost no piloting and relegates non-Russians to the two support seats. "On the Soyuz," Hurley told me, "you're probably not going to be very good as a flight engineer unless you have pretty good capability in the Russian language. And there are not enough Russian classes left in the history of the United States for me to get good at Russian."
In Building 9, Hurley showed me the mock-up of the ISS. "This is what I like to call the Hurley-Nyberg wing of the space station," he said as we entered a module that featured low-fidelity dioramas of science experiments, with plastic mice and lizards frozen in mid-scurry atop gray plastic pebbles. Hurley and his wife, Karen Nyberg, who is also an astronaut, had helped install this section on past flights. Nyberg has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, is fluent in Russian, and is currently training for a long-duration space-station mission. Hurley, however, is unlikely to return to space: While Nyberg is away, he'll be the primary caregiver for their two-year-old son.
Shuttle astronauts like Hurley who have remained in the corps now face two options for returning to space: They can train for a station mission, which requires acquiring a host of skills that they weren't selected for, or they can bide their time in a management or technical job while hoping that a new vehicle will be developed in time to take them back into orbit or past it. "I think most of those guys are holding onto a hope that may not materialize soon enough for them," Jerry Ross, the 30-year veteran of the corps told me.
When the Obama administration announced its intention to cancel Constellation in February 2010, it split the country's manned spaceflight strategy into two parts. Private companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX would receive federal money to develop vehicles to ferry astronauts back and forth to the station. Meanwhile, NASA would pursue a far-off goal of human exploration deeper in space. In the astronaut corps, the lack of a defined manned spaceflight objective was received as a personal affront. Constellation had been over budget and behind schedule, but it had provided NASA with what it most needed: continuity and a goal its staffers could get behind. "There's no better way to tear the heart out of an organization that's all 'schedule and challenge' than to tell them, 'We may use this for something someday; here's a little money, but don't get too excited,'" Ross told me. "There's no purpose at NASA now, and there's no schedule other than sometime, somewhere, someday, some reason."
The current plan is essentially to continue developing elements of the Constellation program – the four-person Orion crew capsule and a heavy-lift rocket – but this time instead of the moon, the goal is to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and to orbit Mars in the mid-2030s. It's not hard to find former NASA grandees skeptical of these plans. In USA Today in May 2011, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan warned that "NASA's human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing." A month later, Michael Leinbach, then the space shuttle's launch director, told his staff, "We're all victims of poor policy out of Washington, D.C., both at the NASA level and the executive branch of the government.... Frankly, as a senior NASA manager, I'd like to apologize to you all." Wayne Hale, the former shuttle program manager, told me that he retired from the agency after he realized "it was going to be a long time before we did really fun and interesting things in the human spaceflight arena again." When I asked Ferguson why he had decided to leave the astronaut corps, he said, "I don't know where NASA's going to be in 10 years. I really, really don't."
For the many shuttle astronauts who have departed NASA before retirement age, the newly empowered private space companies have been the most desirable landing spot. Ferguson is at Boeing. Mark Kelly, the commander of the second-to-last shuttle flight (and husband of the recently retired Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle
Giffords), recently joined an advisory panel for SpaceX. Steve Lindsey, the commander of the third-to-last shuttle mission, now directs flight operations for Sierra Nevada Corporation. Nicholas Patrick, who left the corps earlier this year, has taken a job as human integration architect at Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
But when I met Ken Bowersox, an upbeat, barrel-chested member of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, he described an industry with as much frustration as promise. The 55-year-old astronaut retired from NASA in 2006 as one of the most decorated members of the corps. He had flown five times on the shuttle, commanded a five-month space-station mission, and served for two and a half years as director of NASA's flight crew operations. Excited about the prospects of commercial spaceflight, Bowersox had reached out to Elon Musk, the billionaire PayPal co-founder who runs SpaceX, and was eventually hired as the company's vice-president of astronaut safety and mission assurance. Last December, the two quietly parted ways. "The head of the company wants to do everything himself," Bowersox said. "He doesn't want other people to get involved in certain areas, and if I can't get involved, I can't help. They don't need a guy like me."
Musk's controlling personality was hardly the most pressing problem. More debilitating had been the Capitol Hill fight over ever-scarcer federal dollars, which pitted NASA higher-ups and firms like SpaceX and Boeing against legislators skeptical of commercial spaceflight and reluctant to lose jobs dependent on NASA's existing programs. In the current fiscal year, Congress agreed to fund commercial crew development at only $406 million, less than half the $850 million requested by the Obama administration. NASA currently projects that private spacecraft will begin taking astronauts to the space station in 2017, but that appears unlikely at best. Bowersox told me that on bad days, he fears "it's going to be nine, 10 years before we see anything flying." Private spaceflight triumphs like the docking, in May, of SpaceX's Dragon capsule with the ISS could be few and far between.
Back at Boeing, Ferguson was more restrained, but he couldn't help evincing some of Bowersox's doubts. As we stood next to a model of the company's space capsule, the seven-person CST-100, a Boeing public relations officer showed me a diagram of a space station built with inflatable modules that is being developed by one of the company's partners, Bigelow Aerospace. "They've talked about having a hotel in space," she chirped. Ferguson registered his skepticism: "The space tourism business is kind of this nebulous thing." Later, when the Boeing flack joked that the future of space was so bright that Ferguson would become "king of the lunar colony," he shot back: "I'll be dead by the time there's a lunar colony."
Ferguson had gotten excited about a recent trip to Boeing's program managers school in St. Louis, and he clearly relished his new role as the corporation's principal liaison to NASA's crew office. "Boeing is a wonderful company with great engineers," Ferguson told me, "but sometimes knowing the right person to ask the question of is worth a million dollars." Ferguson's problem is that his new job still depends on the agency he left. His primary role at Boeing is to design the crew systems for the CST-100 capsule, which is competing with SpaceX's Dragon, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser, and several other vehicles to win a NASA contract to bring crews to the ISS. If the CST-100 doesn't get selected, Ferguson says the project could very well be canceled, which means he would likely find himself out of a job.
When I asked Ferguson about his current responsibilities, he told me that helping develop a new spacecraft was the best job a pilot could possibly have. But he left little doubt that even though he's adjusted to his new corporate life at Boeing, he'll never really get over that other life he gave up just last year. "To be the commander of a spaceship, just kind of hanging out there 600 feet below the ISS as you're getting ready to enter the final stages of docking – that's really a pinch-me moment," he said while we were sitting in the very terrestrial Boeing cafeteria. "You look up and the whole thing is so large you have to move your head from one end of the window to the other just to see it. You try to bring people along with you vicariously. You can't, but if you could, if they could be there, they'd see it, and they'd say, 'This is so incredibly important. How could we ever pause for even a moment?'"