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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Sixteen months after NASA's last shuttle flight, the final four astronauts to fly on one of America's winged orbiters have moved on.
Two now are working in the private sector, still involved in the American aerospace industry. Two remain at NASA, working on the future of U.S. human spaceflight, preparing for missions beyond Earth orbit.
Together, they are representative of a NASA Astronaut Office in the midst of dramatic change -- a corps that is just a third of the size it was in the year 2000.
And each of them look forward to a day when U.S. astronauts no longer are hitching rides on Russian spacecraft.
"Last night, we asked the question: 'Where do you think we're all going to be in five years?' And it makes me wonder," mission commander Chris Ferguson said a week ago Friday as he and his crew escorted Atlantis to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where it will be displayed in retirement.
The nation "certainly is going to have flown in space again," he said. "I mean, we're all, obviously, very strong proponents of human space flight, and we all want it to happen. We know it has to happen. We have a space station to support."
Ferguson guided Atlantis to a July 21, 2011, landing at Kennedy Space Center, winding up NASA's 135th shuttle mission and more than three decades of shuttle fleet operations.
NASA now is investing in the development of commercial spacecraft to ferry U.S. and partner nation astronauts to the International Space Station, which will operate until at least 2020 and perhaps 2028.
At the same time, NASA is developing supersized rockets and the Orion crew exploration vehicle for missions into deep space.
But it likely will be 2017 or later before U.S. astronauts are flying on commercial space taxis or the Apollo-style Orion deep space explorer.
Consequently, the size of the Astronaut Office is dwindling. The corps now numbers 52 -- about 66 percent less than the 149 astronauts employed by the office in 2000.
That's not to say interest is in a post-shuttle nosedive.
NASA in 2013 will select nine to 15 new astronaut candidates from a pool of 6,372 applications submitted in response to an announcement of opportunity in late 2011.
That's the second-highest tally in the history of U.S. human spaceflight, and about double the 2,500 to 3,500 applications received in biennial selections.
NASA received more than 8,000 applications for 35 slots in the first class of shuttle-era astronauts selected in 1978.
Veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson said NASA is looking for "people who really stand out."
An applicant's academic background and professional accomplishments are important factors in the selection process.
But NASA also will be looking at "other elements of their personality and character traits -- what types of hobbies they have or unique life experiences," Whitson said.
"We want and need a mix of individuals and skills for this next phase of human exploration."
NASA in the post-shuttle era aims to keep the size of the astronaut corps at about 65 -- the number needed to support International Space Station operations.
The members of NASA's 21st astronaut class will be announced in the spring of 2013. They will replace some of about two dozen high-achieving astronauts who have left the agency since the beginning of 2011 -- the final year of shuttle operations.
Gone is Jerry Ross, the first astronaut to fly seven missions -- a world record he holds with former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz.
And Shannon Lucid, who flew a 188-day mission aboard the Russian space station Mir in the mid-1990s. It was the longest mission ever flown by a woman, a record that stood until Sunita "Suni" Williams flew a 195-day flight in 2006 and 2007.
Only two of the four astronauts on Ferguson's crew still are with NASA.
Pilot Doug Hurley is an assistant director for new programs in the Flight Crew Operations Directorate at Johnson Space Center, the organization that oversees the Astronaut Office. Mission specialist Rex Walheim is the Astronaut Office liaison to the Orion Program.
Mission specialist Sandra Magnus just took a job as the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Washington, D.C.
"It gives me the chance to still be involved in the aerospace community, but in a different way," she said.
Ferguson joined Boeing last December. He is the director of crew and mission operations for the company division that is developing a commercial spacecraft to fly U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.
"We're all pedaling very quickly to come up with the most cost-effective and safe solution for the nation to get humans back to low Earth orbit again," Ferguson said.
By TODD HALVORSON, Florida Today