13. Survival of the Fittest- Training for Space

Submitted by sondra on Sun, 09/11/2011 - 11:14am

by Brett Grady, a senior at Mt. Rainier High School and a volunteer with The Museum of Flight’s Museum Apprentice Program

In September 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmidtt are shown in “extravehicular activity training.” - Photo Courtesy of NASA

After the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite in 1957, a new challenge emerged: putting a human into orbit. In pursuit of this goal, the United States and the Soviet Union were soon locked into a race, each hoping to achieve the next milestone in the history of space exploration. Despite some differences in technology and design, the methods of pilot selection and training were quite similar for both nations.

On early space missions, the primary objectives were to get the craft into orbit and bring it back to Earth safely. With that in mind, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought out people who could best accomplish that task: experienced pilots. Both countries scoured their military forces for the best pilots they could find. In the United States, President Eisenhower further narrowed the search by requiring that candidates be test pilots in their service branch. Through physical and psychological testing, the United States reduced a group of over 500 candidates to seven, while the Soviet Union diminished a similarly sized group to 20.

Selection was only the first step along the road to becoming an astronaut. Astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs would go through training in survival, spacecraft systems and mission-specific sciences before reaching the launch pad. For survival training, the astronauts would be sent to Stead Air Force Base in Nevada. Mercury and Gemini program astronauts practiced how to operate the systems inside a space capsule, while Apollo astronauts prepared to operate either the capsule or a lunar landing module, depending on their role in the mission. Apollo and Gemini astronauts completed geology education at Cinder Lakes, a training area near Flagstaff, Arizona. Craters were blasted out of the ground to create a terrain reminiscent of the moon, so that the astronauts could practice moving in full space suits and on a lunar rover.

Little is known about what cosmonauts of the same era had to go through for their training, due to the “Iron Curtain” of secrecy put in place by the Soviets. All cosmonauts were jet pilots in the Soviet Air Force. However, only a few of the initial 20 cosmonauts were test pilots.

Almost 50 years after selection of the “Mercury Seven” and the 20 initial cosmonauts, both the United States and Russia have opened the door of space travel to a broader audience. NASA now accepts civilians with science or engineering degrees, in addition to military personnel. The Russians also draw from both these fields, as well as accepting space tourists who can afford to pay the cost of space travel. Astronauts are divided into two groups: pilot astronauts, who fly the vehicle itself, and mission specialists, who conduct research in space. Prior to application, pilots must pass a NASA Class I space physical and specialists must pass a NASA Class II space physical. Although it is not a written rule, many pilot astronauts were test pilots at one point. The official requirement is 1,000 hours of jet piloting. Specialists must have a bachelor’s degree with three years of work in their field or have an advanced degree. A master’s degree will be counted as one year of work in the field and a doctorate will be counted as three years of field experience. An interesting aspect of the application is that there is a height requirement: Pilots must be between 5’4” and 6’4” while specialists must be between 4’11” and 6’4”. The Russians also divide their cosmonauts into two groups, but the requirements they must meet are relatively unknown, due to the veil of secrecy that still shrouds the cosmonaut training program. NASA, due to the large number of applicants who meet their listed requirements, performs extensive interviews to narrow down the field of candidates to a manageable size.

After selection, astronaut and cosmonaut candidates all undergo similar training. The first part of their foundation is in class, teaching the candidates about the science involved in space travel and research. Next come physical drills, as candidates must pass various physical exams and go through survival training. In preparation for the microgravity environment they will live in while in space, candidates are taken up in a jet which arcs into the sky, producing the feeling of microgravity for the occupants at the peak of its arc. In addition to this instruction, astronaut candidates must also become SCUBA qualified, so they can practice in the underwater Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. If astronaut and cosmonaut candidates successfully complete candidate training, they will be eligible to advance to mission training.

In preparation for the upcoming mission, the United States and Russia both utilize systems trainers and mission simulators on the ground. An instructor walks each astronaut/cosmonaut through the system trainer that they will be operating in space. Astronauts must spend 11 weeks working together with mission control engineers solving various problems that could occur during a mission. Pilot astronauts receive extensive instruction in approach and landing techniques. Cosmonauts and pilot astronauts also learn the operation of mechanical components, such as the use and repair of the robotic arms.

Astronauts and cosmonauts continue in this training cycle until they are assigned to a mission. If an astronaut or cosmonaut is sent to the International Space Station, he or she must learn the language of the co-workers he or she will be working with (Russian and English). Much of the scenario that training astronauts and cosmonauts go through is never put to the test. On a few occasions though, such as Apollo 13 mission and the Columbia disaster, unplanned scenarios resulted in deadly or near-fatal tragedies.

Despite years of rivalry, the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States have settled their differences and have astronauts and cosmonauts working together on missions. The Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975 was the first collaborative effort, and this successful tradition continues today. The International Space Station is a shining example of cooperation between the two former enemies.