By Irene Klotz
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Former chief astronaut Steve Lindsey announced his retirement on Thursday, the latest in a series of departures from the ranks of NASA's elite corps spurred by the end of the space shuttle program.
For the U.S. space agency's newest astronaut recruits, however, the departure of veteran fliers means less competition for a dwindling number of assignments on the International Space Station.
Instead of about 30 astronauts flying on shuttle missions each year, only about four will be needed to fill U.S.-allotted posts on the station now that the U.S. space shuttle fleet is being retired.
The 30-year shuttle program will end when the crew of NASA's final space shuttle, Atlantis, returns to Earth for a planned landing on July 21.
The space station, an orbital research outpost, is a $100 billion project of 16 nations that was finished this year after more than a decade of construction.
"We knew as we were going through the interview process that there was no suggestion any of us would fly on the shuttle. We knew we were being hired to work on the space station, to do long-duration spaceflight," said Kjell Lindgren, 38, one of nine U.S. members of NASA's newest class of astronauts.
STUDYING RUSSIAN AND ROBOTICS
Instead of learning shuttle systems, Lindgren and his colleagues are taking Russian and robotics classes. If and when he gets a flight assignment, Lindgren, a 38-year-old former NASA flight surgeon, can look forward to at least 2-1/2 years of training spanning five countries.
He doesn't mind flying on Russian rockets, the astronauts' only ride to the station until fledgling U.S. commercial carriers are ready to launch. NASA is investing a total of $269 million in four prospective space taxis, including designs from Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies and Sierra Nevada Corp.
"If those folks back in the '60s could see where we're at now, I think they'd be very surprised that our main competitors would be major partners in an endeavor like the space station," Lindgren said. "I think that's really a natural progression and an important one," he added.
The astronaut corps, which had about 140 members a decade ago, probably will be down to about 50 or 55 by year's end, said chief astronaut Peggy Whitson. She hopes to make small additions to the corps over the next several years to bring staffing up to as many as 60 astronauts.
In addition to six-month postings on the station, astronauts will be assigned a variety of technical jobs, including working with the aspiring commercial space transportation companies.
They'll find more than a few familiar faces. Former NASA astronauts Ken Bowersox and Garrett Reisman now work for Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which is owned by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. And Lindsey, 50, a veteran of four shuttle flights, has a new job at Sierra Nevada.
"I think it's a testament to American ingenuity and drive that we have a private sector that can even take on a task like this, to transport humans to space and back," said Lindgren.
"I can only hope we get to a point where we can have the success that we've seen in civil aviation, but I don't think spaceflight will ever become easy," he said.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Beech)