Magazine article Science News

Shuttle Scientists: An Endangered Species?

Magazine article Science News

Shuttle Scientists: An Endangered Species?

Article excerpt

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. …

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