SUSAN STAMBERG, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.
This coming Friday in Florida, the final space shuttle is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral, ending a 40-year program that's put more humans in space than any other. The space agency is retiring its fleet of shuttle spacecraft, in order to build a device that can carry humans past the Moon and into deep space. That's could take years. Meantime, astronauts who are itching to fly are left floating in limbo.
WEEKEND EDITION's Audie Cornish traveled to the place where astronauts train, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, to find out what's next for the astronaut corps.
AUDIE CORNISH: Brave, daring and working for the greater good, astronauts rank up there with firemen and the president for jobs that inspire kids and spawn scores of movie scripts about heroes - real and imagined - from the strutting cowboy pilots of "The Right Stuff" and Apollo 13...
ALAN SHEPARD: Why don't you fix your little problems and light this candle?
GORDON COOPER: He's right. Let's blast this candle. It surely is, light the candle. Yes, resume the countdown.
JAMES LOVELL: Houston we have a problem. We have a main bus B under volt.
CORNISH: ...to the disaster flick heroes of movies like "Armageddon."
STANLEY ANDERSON: (as The President) The dreams of an entire planet are focused tonight on those 14 brave souls traveling into...
CORNISH: But most of us don't make it past the credits before we've abandoned our own dreams of space travel. Most, but not all - not Jose Hernandez.
JOSE HERNANDEZ: I remember we used to have an old black-and-white console TV, and we would watch the Moon walk. And I remember I would sit there and I would go outside, look at the Moon, come back in, watch Gene Cernan walking on the Moon. Go back out and, you know, I was just amazed that we had humans up on the Moon a quarter-million miles away.
CORNISH: Hernandez is one of three astronauts we met down in Houston. He grew up in a family of migrant workers from Mexico, picking everything from strawberries to lettuce. But ever since he saw those Apollo missions as a kid, he wanted to be an astronaut, and he spent most of his adult life earning engineering degrees, learning Russian, whatever he could to get on NASA's radar.
It took him 12 tries to get into the astronaut program. But by 2009, he was on a shuttle to the space station.
HERNANDEZ: You go up, and you taste it once, and you want to go back. Absolutely, there's no doubt in my mind. I mean, day after I got back, I wanted to go back. I mean it's almost addicting.
CORNISH: But the same year, President Obama delivered a budget to Congress calling for the end of the shuttle program. The plan is for NASA to develop a new spaceship, powerful enough to get to Mars. In the meantime, the U.S. will still work on the International Space Station, but NASA will have to buy seats on Russian spacecraft to get people there.
For Hernandez, the new job requirements were too much. He made the painful decision to leave NASA this past January.
HERNANDEZ: When you train for a shuttle launch, 95 percent of the training is here at Johnson Space Center, so you come home every day. On the contrary, the International Space Station, it's more like a two-and-a-half-year training flow. And 80 percent of those two and a half years, you're training abroad. And then you come back and then you're gone for six months, consecutive, 'cause it's a six-month assignment. It's not a two-week assignment like a shuttle assignment.
So I started doing the math, and I said, you know, I really want to enjoy my kids as they grow up.
CORNISH: That's five kids and years to go before NASA builds a replacement spaceship. Hernandez retired his helmet and headed to the private sector to work as an aerospace contractor. Last year, 20 active duty astronauts left NASA.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION AND CLACKING SOUNDS)
CORNISH: Now the Houston facility, where there used to be more than a hundred astronauts in training, has only 61.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)
CORNISH: Barratt is compact and broad-shouldered. Here he's pumping iron - well, actually vacuum canisters that substitute for the weights that would be useless in space. Without strength training, astronauts lose bone and muscle mass because their bodies aren't fighting gravity. That means they're required to workout - time Barratt actually looks forward to when he's on a mission.
DR. MIKE BARRATT: Nobody can get you during this time...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BARRATT: ...during this time. You know, you're off the timeline. They know not to call you during your exercise time. You're not thinking about your mission and the work that you have to do. So psychologically, it is the only true downtime you have during the day.
CORNISH: Now that astronauts are focused on working at the International Space Station that means longer missions. But ironically, it also means less of a chance to fly. There are fewer trips a year. They require half the number of people with double the training; more study time abroad learning Russian, and enough engineering under your belt to fix everything from robots to toilets.
Barratt's plans: Stick with NASA and his studies in space medicine, and develop training for recruits.
BARRATT: It's the end of an era. It's not the end of human space flight or the end of exploration as we know it. You know, so you're stopping shuttle, but you're starting the complete assembly of this magnificent space station. There is obviously a hiccup in what our next generation crew carrier would be and everybody kind of worries about that.
But, you know, in the grand scheme of things, that is just a hiccup. You know, we'll solve it; we'll figure out something. Maybe four years are going to go by with no U.S. capability to get people up there, so something will come about and this'll be kind of an unhappy memory.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE CENTER SOUNDS)
CORNISH: On the other side of the Johnson Space Center campus, the incoming class of new recruits is plowing on as well. Jack "Two Fish" Fischer, for instance, is practicing his spacewalk. It took six men to help him into the 300-pound astronaut suit, and half-dozen scuba divers to keep an eye on things underwater. It takes a crane to lift and lower him into the neutral buoyancy pool, which has a mock-up of a portion of the International Space Station.
His classmates pose as Mission Control, tossing out various commands to Fischer and another trainee, and the occasional curveball to make sure they can walk, move and think on the fly when they get to space. Okay, you're a go to egress. And heads up, you are an hour ahead of the timeline. That means sunrise is in one hour. We're working through what changes we need to suggest to you on the ground. Holy Lord, all right. Okay?
JACK FISCHER: Tell me for now... Okay. FISCHER: And as we get a little closer we can adjust a little more effectively. Okay.
CORNISH: Many astronauts these days are scientists. With his square jaw, crew cut and clear blue eyes, Fischer is almost a throwback. He's a fighter pilot from the Air Force.
FISCHER: About as graceful as a whale. Do you see this? EV1 (unintelligible).
CORNISH: To start, how did you get the nickname, Two Fish?
FISCHER: Oh, it's unfortunate. You know, everybody wants to have a cool nickname like Maverick or Goose. But when I went to my first operational squadron, there was already a Fischer there and he was kind of a portly fellow, so they called him Blow Fish.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FISCHER: And so one fish, two fish. So it could be worse.
CORNISH: The name stuck at NASA, where Two Fish beat the odds and thousands of other applicants to get into the space program. He's one of just nine people in this astronaut class, the first to sign on knowing they'd never get to fly a U.S. space shuttle. But Fischer insists it's still worth it.
FISCHER: Every step, you have to love what you're doing. And if that's what you do for the rest of your life, then so be it. And I followed that and I loved what I did. I loved being a fighter pilot. I loved being a test pilot. Nowhere would it have been a bad thing if I didn't make it. But it's certainly a good thing that I was lucky enough to get here.
CORNISH: On newspaper headline I read said that first class that wouldn't get to fly.
FISCHER: About our class? Well, you know, in the early '70s when the classes were chosen, I mean Apollo program was being canceled. The last three flights didn't even go. And you're waiting for quite a wait for that next vehicle, the shuttle to come out. It wasn't until '81 that it had actually flew. So every next big evolutionary step in our exploration program, there is going to be a pause. And there's going to be that little respite.
So I think all of us are willing - and more than willing - to wait as long as it takes. So maybe we wouldn't fly, but if we can add our talents to helping make that next step, then by golly, it's worth it.
CORNISH: After more than two years, Fischer finished his training right as NASA is ending the U.S. shuttle program. He's waiting for his first assignment, which could be years from now.
For NPR News, I'm Audie Cornish.