WASHINGTON -- Semifinalists in the journalist-in-space project have learned their possible flight to the last frontier has been put on hold by indefinite delays in the space shuttle program.
Eric Johnson, journalist-in-space project director at the University of South Carolina, notified the 40 national semifinalists in a letter Monday, saying NASA had suspended the competition to become the first reporter in space.
John Noble Wilford, a science writer for The New York Times, said he received his letter Monday and was 'not suprised at all. Since the disaster I've realized it's going to be a while before the shuttle flies and an even longer while before a civilian goes up.
'We'll be a little older. We'll be riper. But if they mean what they say, I should be as O.K. then as now,' said Wilford, 52, one of eight semifinalists from the eastern region. 'I've sort of put my mind on hold because I knew the flight would be delayed.'
Johnson's letter said, 'Since the Challenger accident earlier this year, NASA has been undergoing a thorough review of all activities associated with shuttle launch operations and the impact that launch delays will have on related activities.
'It has become evident that it will be several years before they will be able to include a journalist on a shuttle mission.'
NASA Administrator James Fletcher announced earlier Monday that the first flight of a shuttle following the Jan. 28 Challenger disaster had been delayed another six months to early 1988.
Johnson said Ann Bradley, NASA associate deputy administrator, told the journalist-in-space project the final selection process 'will remain on hold until NASA is able to identify a definite mission, which could include a journalist participant.'
At that time, Johnson said, the semifinalists selected in a national competition in April and May 'will be contacted to assess their interest and availability to resume as participants in the program.'
The flight of a journalist aboard a shuttle was to follow the flight of school teacher Christa McAuliffe. She was among the seven crew members killed when Challenger exploded Jan. 28.
NASA announced the journalist-in-space project last year and more than 1,700 reporters applied. A total of 100 regional semifinalists were chosen in March and the field was narrowed to the final 40, eight journalists from each of the five regions.
The semifinalists include 15 newspaper writers, 12 from television, two from radio, three from magazines, three from wire services and five freelance journalists.
The plan originally was to narrow the 40 semifinalists down to five finalists this fall. Those five contestants then would undergo physical exams at the Johnson Space Center in Houston with NASA selecting a journalist to fly in orbit and a backup.
Before the Challenger accident, NASA planned to fly a journalist on a shuttle this fall.
The project was coordinated by the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, which is located at the University of South Carolina.