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