Right Stuff, Wrong Time
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Credit: Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle / AP

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."