Become an Astronaut; see the world (the hard way)

One more space post before I get the ball rolling on some other topics…

Open the pod bay doors, Hal.

Let’s say for a minute that your life’s goal is to become an Astronaut.  You work your entire life to put yourself in a position to be selected.  You have multiple degrees in math, science, engineering, medicine, or other related disciplines.  You establish yourself as elite in your field of study.  You’ve kept yourself in peak physical condition.  You’ve had the good fortune to stay in perfect health.  You’ve also have the combination of charisma, talent, determination, and luck to make it through the entire Astronaut selection process.  You’ve been selected; you’ve achieved your life’s goal!

Congratulations!

Now the hard work really begins.  After you complete roughly two years of basic training, you work through some office duties, biding your time until you’re selected to be on an International Space Station crew.  For the next ten years, given present NASA goals, the ISS will be the only game in town when it comes to a manned outpost in space.  This is our penultimate destination at the moment.  That’s no slight on ISS either as it’s easily one of the most complex engineering projects humankind has ever produced.

So, you’re slated to be an Expedition crewmember.  What are you in for?  Two and a half years of training in preparation for six months on orbit.  You’re going to go around the world, literally, to train for this endeavor.  Roughly half of that time will be spent in the US learning how to operate the US modules of the station, learning how to perform a spacewalk, and being poked and prodded as you’re not only conducting but the subject of multiple science experiments.

You’ll also travel to Star City, Russia, roughly every other month.  For the next three to five years, the Russian Soyuz will be the only means of reaching Earth orbit.  So you’ll spend roughly eleven months over there learning to be a co-pilot or maybe you’ll be lucky and spend only six months or so there because you’re only a passenger.  You also have to learn how to safely operate some Russian ISS equipment too, like fire extinguishers, gas masks, and other safety critical equipment.

In addition to that, you’ll spend just under two months in Cologne, Germany, but you’ll only go for roughly two weeks at a time.  There you’ll learn to operate the Columbus module or perhaps how to safely dock the European Space Agency’s cargo vehicle, the ATV, in addition to learning about more potential experiments.

We won’t stop there though as you’ll also make your way to Tsukuba, Japan.  In the two months you spend there, one week at a time, you’ll learn to operate the Japanese Exploration and Aerospace Agency’s Kibo module as well as their cargo vessel, the HTV, and the Japanese robotic arm.

Speaking of the robotic arm, you’ll also spend a couple of weeks in Montreal, Canada, learning how to operate the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS).  This is the giant robotic arm that has been a part of almost every ISS assembly mission for the last ten years.

You’ll do all that plus travel to different sites in the US, possibly visiting SpaceX or Orbital facilities to learn to operate their Dragon and Cygnnus vehicles.

In two and a half years, you’ll learn to live in the ISS, fly on a Soyuz, rendezvous with an ATV, HTV, Dragon, or Cygnus vehicle, perform an EVA, and on top of that, you’ll need to learn how to converse in Russian.  After all, your crew will include at least three Cosmonauts among the six person complement.

So be prepared.  The next two and a half years will be scripted down to the minute.  You’ll be able to take some vacation, but even that will need to be negotiated among a panel of schedule integrators representing space agencies around the globe. Your time is no longer your own.

Why do we do it this way?  Wouldn’t it be easier to do all in one country?  Well, imagine you are the president of a space agency in this program.  You’re agency sinks millions of dollars and millions of hours into developing a vital component for the station.  Don’t you think for all that time and effort you would like to have the reward, the morale boost, the good PR, of having the crew visit your installation?  Don’t you think the President of your country would also expect that small return on investment for all of the taxpayer dollars that are funneled into the program?

There’s other practical reasons for this, too.  It would be very expensive for the international partners to replicate high or even medium fidelity trainers at Johnson Space Center in Houston.  It would also cost quite a bit to either continuously fly personnel to Houston to provide training or to continuously train instructors resident at JSC to provide that training.

For these reasons, it’s a lot easier to fly you, the Astronaut, the public face of space exploration, around the world to each of these installations.  Your ultimate reward in all this is six months in the heavens, getting to experience what so few have.  I have no doubt it’s worth it, but recognize the toll it takes, not only on you but also your family.

I wrote this to give some small bit of insight into the long, winding journey that is Astronaut training.  Much of this is what my office manages on a day-to-day basis, something that I am very proud to play a small part in.

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About Jason
Family man. NASA manager. Writer. Football fan. Hockey fan. Deist. Left of center. Left-handed. Born in New Jersey, raised in Philadelphia, college educated in Massachusetts, now living in Houston. Thoughts here are my own.

2 Responses to Become an Astronaut; see the world (the hard way)

  1. drue hontz says:

    Great article. Would you be interested in doing a Skype interview with us. Visit our news website Track180.com Let me know.

    Thanks!
    drue

  2. Josh says:

    You forgot to mention all of the fun in learning how to survive life-threatening situations.

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