For all intents and purposes, the United States is getting out of the manned space game: The shuttle's final launch is scheduled for late June, and aside from planned voyages by private companies and visits to the International Space Station, America now needs no astronauts, or people to train them and support them.
See also: Interview with Michio Kaku.
"For the last 20 years it's been pretty stable," says David Wolf, 54, who flew four missions. "Now with these major changes, we're really seeing a rash of retirements and going-away parties. A lot of people are just forced to move on. It's really hard in these times of big changes."
So how does midlife recareering work for the shuttle crowd?
Last summer, 57-year-old NASA research pilot Charlie Justiz received the figurative gold watch at his going-away party before a crowd of 300 at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Members of shuttle crews he helped train passed around the microphone and roasted him, and in a video tribute some astronauts training in Russia performed a parody of the cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Now, instead of teaching astronauts how to land the shuttle in a Gulfstream II flying simulator or introducing crews to weightlessness in NASA's "vomit comet" zero-gravity simulator, Justiz will run a fleet of business aircraft for a large Internet company (which he's not at liberty to name just yet).
He's also published a novel, Specific Impulse.
At least one astronaut hasn't announced plans past his final space flight. Mark Kelly will command a mission by the Endeavor shuttle scheduled to launch on April 29. For a while it wasn't clear that he'd go — his wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was gravely wounded in a Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson. But later that month, he announced that he would go ahead, and there are now tentative plans for the convalescing Giffords to attend the launch.
As a group, astronauts are highly educated, highly competent, highly confident. And yet they face the same challenges the rest of us do when they're forced to change careers in midstream.
A one-day seminar presented by the Association of Space Explorers offered astronauts the following recommendations: Polish up your resumé and reformat it in a way that fits the job you're applying for. And reach out to your network.
"The networking thing is important as we grow older," Wolf says. "Astronauts are no exception. They're the same as anybody else who needs to move on."
Wolf, however, is remaining with NASA for the time being. A doctor as well as an astronaut, he's conducting research on tissue regeneration that may one day allow growth of new heart, cartilage and brain tissue, which wear out over the decades.