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What Is Astronaut Training?
Astronaut training refers to the wide-ranging skillset new astronauts need to learn and tests they need to take before they can fly into space. The training program involves both physical and mental tests.
In the United States, following astronaut selection, NASA trains astronauts at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Its astronauts-in-training are called “AsCans,” short for “astronaut candidates,” and they train for two years.
Why Is Training Important?
Space travel exposes astronauts to some extreme conditions—and all without the usual access to experts to help them out if they run into problems on Earth. This means astronauts need to be prepared to fix any hazards to their health or that of other crew members themselves.
They need to be familiar with what effects launching, landing, and long-duration spaceflight have on their body and how to handle adverse reactions, including adapting physically to weightlessness and psychologically to isolation.
What Are NASA’s Requirements for Astronauts?
Very few people make it through NASA’s selection process for astronauts. Of the 18,000 applicants in 2016, the space agency selected only 12 for its 2017 intake—and its previous intake was just eight people in 2013.
The minimum requirements for applicants are:
- A bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological/physical/computer science, or mathematics
- At least three years of professional experience (or 1000+ hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft)
- The ability to pass the physical exam and meet the anthropometric requirements
Other skills that NASA considers highly are scuba diving; wilderness experience; leadership experience; and other languages. It is currently a requirement that all astronauts learn Russian, so pre-existing knowledge is a bonus.
What Do NASA Astronauts Learn To Do During Training?
NASA AsCans learn a number of different skills in the astronaut training program, including:
- Piloting, using NASA’s fleet of T-38 supersonic jet aircraft
- Spacewalking, or what is officially known as extravehicular activity (EVA). They practice for this in the training facility’s 45-foot-deep swimming pool, called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. There’s also the KC-135 aircraft, known as the “Vomit Comet,” which plunges through the air to simulate the feeling of weightlessness
- Flight operations and safety aboard the ISS and Soyuz spacecraft. This is done using life-sized mock-ups, and increasingly virtual reality as well
- The science behind the experiments they will be conducting in space. For missions to the ISS, each astronaut needs to be versed in more than 100 experiments
- Survival and leadership
- First aid and rudimentary medical care
- Cultural sensitivity training for working with teams from around the world
Chris Hadfield’s 6 Tips for Astronaut Training
Canadian astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield—once referred to as “the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong”—first went to space in 1995 aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, and in 2013, he went viral with a video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” recorded while he commanded the International Space Station (ISS).
Hadfield trained with the Canadian Space Agency before NASA selected him to be a mission specialist in 1992. Here are his tips for basic astronaut training:
- Forget the movies. Hadfield says that the astronaut personality we often see portrayed in movies is an overly dramatized version of the type of person who is actually trusted to go to space. Astronauts need to have cool heads and be able to calmly execute highly difficult tasks under extremely stressful situations.
- You’re an ASCAN now. Upon being selected as an astronaut candidate, a position with the unfortunate abbreviation “ASCAN,” you find yourself at the bottom of the heap. It takes years of work to get in the door to astronaut training, but that hard-won acceptance is actually just the beginning.
- Become an expert in everything. Astronauts need to know everything about everything that happens on board a spaceship because, as Hadfield puts it, “when you’re in space, often there’s no one else to ask.” ASCANs study for two years before they even qualify as rookie astronauts. They cover everything from how rockets work to weather patterns, geology, electronics repair, and medical procedures. The ISS is exquisitely complicated; as an astronaut on board, the only person who can fix it will be you, so motivation is high.
- Train to survive emergency landings on Earth. Survival training turns out to be a necessary part of astronaut preparation. In an emergency, your spaceship may have to undock from the ISS quickly, and thus you could end up landing anywhere on Earth. Since roughly 70% of our planet is water, you must learn how to use all the safety equipment in the event of a splashdown. Astronauts similarly need to train to survive in the Arctic and deserts.
- Learn leadership techniques for survival. Survival training isn’t just about preparing for emergency landings—it also helps a crew evolve and bond as a team, with mutual trust and respect under stress.
- See the body as a system. Astronauts must also develop expertise in the human body and how it works, in order to properly conduct medical experiments and be ready to handle health emergencies on the ISS. It may feel unnatural and daunting at first, but you need to learn to look at the body as just another system. Hadfield trained at a hospital in Houston to develop skills needed to deal with a range of injuries, from practicing on cadavers to treating eye injuries and burns, and on to intubating, stitching, and administering an IV.
What Is Spacewalk Training?
Astronauts spend hundreds of hours training underwater, learning how to operate and maneuver in their spacesuit, learning how to think in three dimensions, and developing new techniques for spacewalking.
During training, you practice the skills to monitor the health of your suit, get used to the cadence of hot sun rises and frigid, dark sunsets every 46 minutes, and prepare for the physically demanding experience of spacewalking, as the pressurized, stiff suit resists every motion.
You train and prepare to the point that when you are carrying out an actual spacewalk, the experience is not overwhelming, but hopefully familiar and efficient.
- The underwater training is very similar to a real spacewalk. The spacesuit is assembled around the EVA astronaut poolside by a crewmate, in order to accurately simulate the sequence and skills needed in orbit. The suit is so heavy that once you’re fully suited up, a crane has to lift and lower you into the water. Safety divers adjust weights on your suit to make it perfectly neutrally buoyant, and then training begins with the two spacewalkers inside the cramped, replica airlock.
- In order to get the most out of this simulation, you need to make it as realistic as possible in your own mind. The full-size accuracy of the underwater ISS mock-up and the neutral buoyancy environment help, but you also need to have the right mindset. As fighter pilots say, “you fight like you train.”
Why Are Space Simulations a Vital Part of Astronaut Training?
Spaceships are so complex that you train to operate them in stages. First, you just learn the theory behind everything. Then you study in single-system trainers, seeing how something complex works independently. After that, you’re ready to get into a more integrated cockpit by yourself, and then with other crew members.
Eventually, the training team starts injecting system failures into the simulation. Finally, you’re ready for full mission profiles with multiple, interrelated malfunctions that test the very limits of crew and vehicle.
- The training team’s aim is to show you every possible thing that can go wrong and let you practice how to properly react. Although simulations are vital, some skepticism is required, because they will inevitably behave slightly differently than the real systems do, especially in the non intuitive environment of space.
- Simulating space tasks has always been difficult to properly do on Earth, especially with purely mechanical mock-ups, but virtual reality is helping to provide new ways for astronauts to experience as close as possible to what they will be doing.
- As space missions become more multifaceted and astronauts venture to the moon and Mars, training will also become more complex. Astronauts will no longer have an option to land back on Earth if something goes wrong, so they’ll need to be more thoroughly prepared to deal with the unknown. Simulations for missions of this kind will need to help astronauts be as prepared as possible, including updated onboard virtual reality to continue to train during the mission itself.
Learn more about space exploration in former astronaut Chris Hadfield’s MasterClass.