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Shuttle scientists: an endangered species?

Shuttle scientists: An endangered species?

In 1978, three years before the first shuttle launching, NASA introduced a new category of space-fliers without astronaut status. Unlike full-time astronauts, the new breed -- called payload specialist -- was conceived specifically to handle the details of astronomy, biology and other scientific missions, which the agency envisioned as a major thrust of the shuttle era. The whole point, as NASA described it, was that "participation by individuals associated with the investigations should enhance the probability of successful achievement of payload objectives."

Now, however, NASA is chaning -- or at least rewriting -- the rules, in a way that has raised some concern about whether the quality of science aboard the shuttle will get short shrift. The agency is not barring payload specialists, most of them full-time researchers who are able to stay much closer to their science than can most astronauts. But NASA is redefining payload specialists as those who "perform specialized functions with respect to operation of one or more payloads or other essential mission activities."

The difference is sublte, and not a hard-and-fast rule, but it reflects a longtime conflict between the "professional astronauts" and the "professional scientists." According to the new policy, "emphasis will be on using the astronaut cadre whenever possible." And therein lies the rub.

One payload specialist, for example, is Drew Gaffney, a cardiologist and associate professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He is to make his maiden flight in June when the shuttle carries the Spacelab research module on a mission devoted to the life sciences. He is not an astronaut, however, and he says his goal is to continue in medicine, not to abandon his career for that of an astronaut. Gaffney worries whether researchers will have fewer opportunities to work aboard the shuttle in the future.

"I am concerned that the changes in the policy will make it more difficult for the science community to have its members on board the shuttle doing their experiments," he says. "The change in policy seems to be a lessening of the emphasis on top-quality science at a time when the agency is being asked to focus itself more toward its science activities."

NASA now employes 96 astronauts -- 44 pilots and 52 "mission specialists," of whom 22 have PhDs in various scientific fields. Only about 5 of those have participated in experiments associated with their disciplines, and many of the rest would like to do the same. But payload specialists represent competition with the astronauts for a finite number of flight opportunities.

"The scientists want someone who's up to speed working with data in a specific field," says NASA spokesman Charles Redmond, but involving astronauts in a mission's scientific needs might save training time. Adds Redmond, "There's friction on both sides."
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Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 4, 1989
Words:463
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