NASA astronauts on how their jobs have changed

NASA astronauts resized

At the recent European Space Agency open day, SciTech Europa Quarterly met with NASA astronauts Walt Cunningham and Rusty Schweickart (who flew on the Apollo missions) to discuss how things have changed in the last 50 years.

On 6 October, ESTEC – the European Space Research and Technology Centre, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) main technology development and test centre for spacecraft and space technology, welcomed several thousand people through its doors for an Open Day, and SciTech Europa Quarterly attended as a part of the media contingent. Whilst there, we were able to meet with two American astronauts who were a part of the NASA Apollo missions in the 1960s (we also met with ESA’s Director General, Jan Worner, and the Head of ESTEC, Franco Ongaro, the interviews with whom can also be found within this section).

Walt Cunningham was a part of Apollo 7 – the first crewed Apollo mission – in 1968. Apollo 7 spent 11 days in orbit and proved the reliability of Apollo’s Command Module, preparing the way to the moon. He went on to serve as chief astronaut on the Skylab programme, becoming closely involved with the design of the crew systems for the International Space Station (ISS).

Rusty Schweickart was the first person to fly the Lunar Module in space, testing it in Earth orbit during the Apollo 9 mission in 1969 and he also undertook the first spacewalk of the Apollo programme using the new Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit.

Of course, the Apollo missions ended some time ago, and since then the way in which space missions are approached and indeed operated, and the way in which astronauts are selected and the tasks they undertake, have all changed. Sometimes dramatically.


SciTech Europa Quarterly asked Cunningham about some of these changes, and what he felt were the biggest differences between the Apollo missions and their teams of astronauts, and the missions of today. While he acknowledged that the technological and scientific developments have seen profound changes in the way space flight is done, for him it was the human element – and sometimes the politics involved with and around it – that stands in stark contrast.

He told SEQ: “Things have changed tremendously, not only in terms of the efficiency and the capability of the missions, but also with regard to the general diversity of knowledge on board, compared to what it was. For example, I was so glad to be a part of the Apollo missions – I was in the third group of astronauts that were selected. But today, I would perhaps be more hesitant about applying – now, there are probably thousands of people who meet the requirements and have the qualifications to become astronauts, and that is opening up the field.”

While diversity, of course, is a good thing, for Cunningham a potential issue arises when the selection is influenced by politics. He said: “There is a different kind of attitude today. I personally believe that it would be better if everybody recognised the fact that you have to be willing to stick your neck out a little. In the Apollo days, that was pretty standard.”

As an example, Cunningham explained that during the Apollo programme the astronauts were “all male military pilots,” while now it has to be ensured that gender and ethnicity is taken into account when looking at team composition, alongside a range of technical and scientific capabilities and qualifications etc. “That is fine,” he went on. “I don’t have anything against doing that. But to have that as the driving force, as opposed to reaching out to the very edge and pushing things as far as possible, is perhaps the wrong approach.”

Cunningham also explained that the Apollo 7 mission had taken three years to plan before launch, and that it took three attempts to launch before it successfully flew. “We just breathed a sigh of relief when the boosters started up and we knew we were going to be able to go. And during that time, a huge part of every mission was survival. In more modern missions, the equipment and capabilities have improved so much that this has been reduced, meaning that attitudes have also changed.”


Of course, the technological differences between 1960s missions and those flying today are often huge, and, as Cunningham explained, much of this is due to the time, and indeed money, that has been invested in these areas since the days of the Apollo programme.

“Some of those technologies were started when we were working in Skylab,” he told SEQ. Skylab was the first US space station, launched by NASA and occupied for about 24 weeks between May 1973 and February 1974. It burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere in 1979. “I headed up the Skylab branch of the astronaut office for about two years, before deciding to leave NASA, and I think that we did very well on extending the lifetime of equipment, and utilising to a greater degree.”

The moon and more

It has been 50 years now since Neil Armstrong made his ‘one small step’ on the Moon, but there are plans in place now for astronauts to revisit the lunar surface (NASA, for instance, has said it will achieve this by 2024, while Elon Musk recently stated his belief that this could happen in just two-to-four years). “There are some sensible approaches to going back to the Moon,” Cunningham told SEQ, “and having a facility to, for instance, monitor the weather and things like that, but I doubt whether we will be doing much more than that due to the cost.

“Eventually, we might go to Mars. In just the last 50 years we have learned so much about Mars by sending unmanned missions, but I don’t think that a manned Mars mission is really a priority at the moment, at least not in the time scales being put forward by some people,” the astronaut added, referring to Musk’s ambitions. “Though it may well happen, in the normal flow of things, and will take 30, 40 or perhaps 50 years.”

Asked why that was, he replied: “I don’t think that many people realise that you are talking about 10-12 months just to get to Mars, or that in order to return home you have to wait until Mars is in the right place before you launch.” Furthermore, Cunningham also highlighted the fact that there have been several examples of people suffering negative health effects after spending extended periods of time in space. “You have to find a way to deal with all of that before we send human beings to land on Mars,” he said.

Trying not to repeat history

As previously mentioned, NASA has a goal to get back to the moon by 2024. However, there are concerns from some quarters that the Artemis programme – which intends to land the astronauts on the moon in 2024 with a second mission scheduled for 2025, as well as plans for the creation of a space station, called Gateway, which will permanently orbit the Moon – will peter out in much the same way as the Apollo programme.

Commenting on this, Cunningham said: “Over the last 50 years we have seen instances where significant amounts of money have been invested in the reusability of the Lunar Module, but that is now being scaled back, and that could be the result of the public at large not being as enthusiastic about pushing things out as they once were.

“Talking about going back to the Moon in four or five years, I think it’ll be nice to have that capability,” Cunningham added, “because it drives technology development,” – although this is again somewhat different to the Apollo years when Cunningham had been required to work with the contractors to test new technologies – to “develop development” was the phrase he used.

The private sector

It is perhaps as a result of the wider societal benefits of technologies primarily devised and developed for space-based activities that the private sector may come to play an increasingly more prominent role in the future.

Cunningham explained: “There has been huge improvements over the last 50 years in numerous aspects. To take communications as just one example: now, communication between astronauts and the ground is available for about 99.5% of the time. For us, when we were in space, it was just 4.5%. It is now possible for friends and family to wish an astronaut happy birthday! It is developments like this which stand to have a much wider impact.”

Enthusiasm and co-operation

For Rusty Schweickart, enthusiasm – along the same lines as those mentioned by Cunningham in regard to the public’s enthusiasm and how this effects how much is invested into missions – is also of the utmost importance, and he argued that we need to approach space exploration as a species, as humans, rather than in the way that the ‘space race’ – of which, of course, the Apollo missions were a key part – was undertaken some 50 years ago. However, there is also perhaps the argument that it was the competitive element of the space race which so captured the public’s imagination – particularly as it was being run against the Soviet Union in a Cold War and anti-communist environment.

Yet, for Schweickart, “there is a bigger question.” He explained that different people are motivated by different issues, and that, even within Apollo “the primary motivation was to defeat the Soviet Union, as the United States was embarrassed by having been beaten to being the first in space.”

This had resulted, he told SciTech Europa Quarterly, in “a kind of collective concern, which allowed President Kennedy to declare, basically out of pride, the race to the Moon, which was executed successfully. But, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and while something similar could be instigated against Russia or China – and there are those who do indeed see it as a matter of national pride to ‘beat’ these other countries – most of us who have flown in space would prefer to see activities being undertaken with international co-operation.

“If that is the right way to go, which I feel is the case, then ‘racing’ against another country would be ineffective. Most of us – and here I think I can speak for all of my fellow astronauts and cosmonauts – feel that space exploration ought to be international. And there is almost no American astronaut, that I know of at least, who thinks that we ought to see the Chinese, for instance, in the same way as we saw the Soviets during the Apollo era. That is not to say, however, that friendly competition should not exist.

“For me,” he concluded, “the pragmatic question, from the standpoint of government programmes, is going to be how do you get taxpayer money? You must have the support of the taxpayer base if you’re going to use their money. And so the question then becomes: what is the cultural motivation for continuing space exploration? Maybe that is where friendly competition comes into play. Or maybe it is science. Or perhaps it is the abstract issue of exploration. For me, it is ‘big history’.”

Big history

Explaining what he meant by this term, Schwickart went on: “If you look from the Big Bang to the current time, life was built into the Universe from the time it was essentially quark soup. From the Big Bang, there was an evolution through physics and the formation of elements, and gradually through supernovae etc. physics evolved into chemistry. Then, at a point some 5 billion years or so ago, chemistry evolved into biology. This emergence if biology was an amazing evolutionary moment in the history of the Universe, where intentionality was introduced; biology, by definition, is interested in survival.

“Think about how a concept like survival becomes part of the evolutionary movement in the Universe. And out of biology, of course, comes intelligence and consciousness and the ability for the first time to recognise the Universe which is also produced via this phenomenon; we are the manifestation of that evolution of the Universe itself, here on planet Earth. And here on Earth, as a foetus from within a pregnant mother, we have now peeked out through the birth canal, beginning with Apollo, and have seen that we are part of the cosmos.”


The astronaut concluded: “This moment of cosmic birth is how I view the Apollo programme and space exploration more generally. And we now have a responsibility for the continuance of life and the evolutionary process of the Universe. That is the motivation for future space missions; that is the responsibility that we have: to ensure that this universal experiment that we are a part of continues. To me, that is a very powerful vision and rationale for the continued development and movement outward from Mother Earth. Is that adequate for other people? I don’t know. But for me, that is certainly the primary motivation, and I believe that motivation needs to be communicated to people.”

The 50 year anniversary of the Apollo missions thus not only marks the commemoration of a defining moment in space exploration, but also shows us how things have changed – whether from a political, scientific, or technological point of view. And yet, some things remain the same: motivation and enthusiasm for space remains crucial if we are to continue to explore space and reach out from, to use Schwickart’s term, this ‘mother Earth’ and so better understand the role that we are playing in the Universe’s ‘Big History’.


Walt Cunningham, Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 7.

Rusty Schweickart, Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 9.


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