Have you ever seen the James Bond film Moonraker? In it, Bond does battle with Jaws, the villain’s hulking bodyguard, aboard a space station orbiting earth. Due to recent NASA size restrictions for astronauts, poor Jaws would likely have to be ejected from the space program on account of his above-average size.
Just a few short years ago, NASA decided to retire the space shuttle and focus its efforts on developing and smaller space vehicles. The restrictions will be based on weight and sitting height. Because the vehicles are still being developed, the precise restrictions are not yet known.
1981 marked the beginning of shuttle flights. In those days, the only size restriction mandated by NASA was height. More recently, the minimum required height was set at just 4’ 10 1/2”. The maximum height was 6’ 4”.
Duane Ross, head of astronaut selection at NASA, agreed with the size restrictions, admitting that it would be “wrong” to select astronauts that wouldn’t fit into the spacecraft. Indeed, anybody who’s watched a space movie can appreciate the already cramped interiors, so it’s easy to understand the importance of selecting more svelte astronauts as the vehicles are further miniaturized going forward.
In other words, astronauts who have been keeping up with their vitamin fulfillment requirements might soon have difficulty aboard manned spacecraft
The shuttle being phased out by NASA has a now-familiar shape: it resembles a plane, but measures in at a mere 122 feet. Whereas many flights into space are unmanned, the shuttle was designed specifically for transporting materials and personnel into orbit.
With the shuttle out of the picture, how are astronauts going to hitch a ride into space? The current frontrunner is the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, most recently depicted in Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller Gravity. The Soyuz is only seven feet wide but holds three people. Already favored by NASA for carrying astronauts into orbit, the Soyuz will likely be used until at least 2015, at which time NASA hopes that its private firms will have completed design and construction on the new space vehicles.
Currently, the U.S.-designed Orion spacecraft is the most likely replacement for the shuttle. It measures in at 16 1/2 feet across, giving it somewhat more generous proportions than the Soyuz. If all goes according to NASA’s plans, the Orion spacecraft will conduct its first flight in 2015, when it will carry American astronauts to the International Space Station. Sometime later, around the year 2020, NASA hopes to use the new vehicle to return astronauts to the moon.
NASA understands better than most that further restricting height and weight might seem unfair to many, but maintain that their goal is to accommodate the largest possible population. After all, NASA recruitment thrives on diversity… up to a point. It’s important to remember that the restrictions are in place because of safety concerns; the Orion is capable of protecting and shielding its occupants (in the event of an emergency landing) only so long as they are of a certain size and weight. Anyone with a body type that exceeds the restrictions will be placing themselves in harm’s way.
The best known historical example of NASA’s height restrictions were Wendy Lawrence and Scott Parazynski, who in 1990 were banned from flying in the Soyuz for being too short and too tall, respectively. Having an existing precedent might not make this an easier pill to swallow for modern astronauts, but it at least serves as a reminder that NASA’s number one priority is safety.