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