Despite the remarkable technical feat of space travel and the high-level skills that astronauts need, being one isn't quite as prestigious as it used to be.

That was part of the message yesterday as Drexel University played host to three graduates who know first-hand what being an astronaut is about.

Shrinking funding for NASA has coincided with a decline in support from the public, which often spends more time talking about tragedies or controversies than the space program's successes.

Capt. Christopher Ferguson, pilot of the space shuttle Atlantis' September mission, saw that firsthand when, as senior Naval officer for NASA, he traveled to Orlando earlier this month to investigate why astronaut Lisa Nowak faced attempted murder and other charges in connection with an alleged love triangle involving another astronaut.

The ensuing media storm was more attention than NASA received for its recent missions, and the controversy took many in the program aback.

"Lisa was a classmate of mine and is a good friend," said former astronaut Paul Richards.". . . It was a shock, because it's totally uncharacteristic of the personality I've known for 10 years."

Ferguson, Richards and James Bagian, a former astronaut, returned yesterday to Drexel as part of National Engineers Week.

The astronauts, all mechanical engineering graduates of Drexel's College of Engineering, shook hands and took pictures with scholarship winners and grad students, spoke of their missions, and took questions from the audience during a panel discussion.

The astronauts spoke of their time at Drexel, how and why they took their career paths and where they see NASA now and in the future.

A thread through the discussion was NASA's erosion of prestige. Ferguson said the number of astronaut applicants had dropped from about 8,000 a year to 3,000. He blamed a loss in excitement since the era of the moon landing in 1969, and catastrophic accidents that shocked the public.

Said Ferguson, "NASA does amazing things every day and you don't hear about it. You only seem to hear about us when somebody makes an error or has a lapse in personal judgment."

Both Ferguson and Bagian, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' National Center for Patient Safety, who had a 15-year career at NASA, attributed that to the "Mike Schmidt effect."

"We make it look easy," said Bagian.

Added Ferguson, "I think we've sort of normalized success," noting that a space walk was in progress at that moment - which almost none in the audience realized.

Bagian, who went into space twice, helped develop the first treatment for space motion sickness.

The astronauts stressed to Drexel students that working at NASA is an achievable goal, and that those who go into space aren't all that different from anyone else.

"These people are just like you," said Ferguson. "They have kids and a dog and their own problems." *