Space Program's End Leaves Astronauts Jobless

By: Mark Straussman - CBS News Email
By: Mark Straussman - CBS News Email

As the NASA shuttle fleet heads for retirement, the number of astronauts are dwindling. Some are retiring, while others are moving on to private companies.

Michael Fincke's just lived any astronaut's dream, riding on the shuttle last month to the space station.

"Oh, boy you could feel the seven million pounds of thrust - you could feel it in your bones, the majesty of a space shuttle."

For NASA astronauts, that majesty comes with a new reality.

From the Mercury and Apollo glory days -- when astronauts became instant American heroes -- NASA grew to 149 shuttle astronauts a decade ago.

Only 61 of them remain -- as the shuttle fleet heads for retirement.

Fincke says:

"There's a lot of soul-searching going on in the astronaut world, It's a little intimidating i think, especially for a lot of us who've only had one dream and now all of a sudden things are changing."

Like Fincke, astronaut Rick Mastracchio is sticking around, and with good reason. In 2013, he's heading to the space station.

But when he launches, he'll have to ride with the Russians.

Rick says:

"It's very disappointing as an astronaut not to have a vehicle that can carry more folks into orbit. I think we're in for a very big challenge, and the next five years can go either way."

What is clear: American astronauts will fly a lot less. At most, about three or four astronauts a year will squeeze into one of these Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and head to the space station.

On the Soyuz, Americans likely will be passengers.

NASA needs fewer astronauts, especially pilots.

Despite all the unknowns, this generation of astronauts still dares to dream...of flight.

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