The Continued Evolution of Human Spaceflight Training

In my department, we have no less than a dozen different efforts designed to improve the quality of training provided to flight controllers, astronauts, and fellow instructors in preparation for human spaceflight missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and all of its supporting vehicles.  From creating new simulators that provide better on-orbit training capabilities to working with Harvard and UCLA to better prepare flight controllers for the stresses and fatigue of console work to implementing the use of Web 2.0 tools to improve how we communicate and collaborate, we constantly strive to find new ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the training we provide.

We’ve come a long way from the early days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs when the astronaut corps was comprised of mostly test pilots who knew every facet of how their experimental vehicles operated.  Those astronauts were supported by hundreds of the best engineers on the planet who knew the ins and outs of every nut, bolt, circuit board, and vacuum tube that comprised those vehicles.  The astronauts were responsible for flipping every switch on those spacecraft; they controlled the horizontal and the vertical and everything in between.

With shuttle, we not only had pilots and commanders who knew every facet of the vehicle but we also had mission specialists and payload specialists who were responsible for their own specialized tasks.  Those tasks ranged from extra-vehicular activities (EVAs), space walks, to using the Shuttle and ISS robotic arms to perform ISS assembly tasks, to wide array of scientific experiments focusing on anything from materials science to studies of the human body.  Those crews, initially supported by teams of hundreds as in the early programs, eventually were supported by teams of dozens as we grew more adept at operating the shuttle.

With ISS, we faced different challenges.  In took some time for us to adjust to the ISS paradigm where the astronauts do not pilot the vehicle; the mission control team does.  With shuttle and the earlier vehicles the astronauts controlled just about everything and knew every inch of their spacecraft; that is almost an impossibility with the ISS.  The vehicle is too large and too complex for any one person or two people to control.  Now, mission control teams in Houston, Huntsville, Toulouse, Munich, Moscow, and Tsukuba, fly the vehicle on a day-to-day basis.  Those mission control teams control the orientation of the vehicle, change its attitude, maneuver the vehicle to avoid orbital debris, control ISS power, life support, computer systems, etc.

With crew members freed from the majority of these vehicle control capabilities, that leaves them free to perform two things: science and maintenance.  Currently, ISS crews are expected to perform 35 hours per week of science experiments, ensuring that we are using this national laboratory for its intended purpose.  The majority of the rest of their time is spent taking care of themselves and the vehicle.

To take care of themselves, every crew member is expected to do at least two hours per day of exercise.  To ensure they stay sharp mentally, they are given plenty of resources and time to stay in touch with family members or to entertain themselves with their leisure activity of choice.

Beyond that, fixing the vehicle takes up the rest of their time.  One of the many things that I love about the original Star Wars trilogy is the spaceships, in particular the Millennium Falcon.  The Falcon isn’t some sleek, smooth, perfectly operating vehicle; it breaks.  The hyperdrive doesn’t work, it suffers burnouts, and various other problems as the ship attempts to lurch from planet to planet.  This is one thing the George Lucas got right.

We don't have hydrospanners yet, but I'm sure we will some day.

Filters get clogged.  Valves get stuck.  Software gets corrupted.  Electrical components short out.  When any of those things happen, the affected equipment needs to be fixed or replaced and while there are dozens of mission controllers on Earth who can tell the crew what to do; there are only six people in space who can actually do that work.  Every day, the ISS crew spends time fixing things with support from their mission control teams.

So instead of training pilots, we train repairmen and women and scientists.  We train them to live in a house, a house with the best customer support in the world, but not to fly a spaceship.  Mission control teams no longer just support the crew; they fly the vehicle.  We have to train accordingly.

With the right funding and a little luck, we on the NASA-side will resume training pilots to fly any of four or five different spacecraft to fly to ISS.  For now though, that pilot training is the responsibility of our Russian colleagues. Once those vehicles are in place, we will hopefully set our sites outward in the solar system.  Then our training challenges will multiply.

We will again have to shift our focus.  Astronauts will once again be in charge of the spacecraft.  Once the spacecraft gets far enough away from Earth, it will no longer be practical for the ground to control all aspects of the vehicle.  Once again we will have pilots, but with the long duration nature of missions, we will need more repairmen and women.  And in addition to those roles, there will of course be scientists ready to carry out our next steps of scientific discovery in the solar system.

For ISS, we already face challenges with having to train so much information that there is no way one person can retain it all.  To offset that, we are challenged to produce training materials that can be delivered to the crew members at the moment they need them.  Astronauts receive 2.5 years of training; flight controllers receive another 2.5.  All to operate a vehicle that we are able to communicate with instantly.

In the future, we won’t have that luxury.  But equipment will still break and the crew will need to fix it.  Astronauts will need to maintain their piloting skills even while on the surface of Mars or an asteroid. They will need to set up habitats, operate rovers, perform surface EVAs, etc.  It won’t be practical to train all of this prior to a mission.

Over the next decade, my organization is challenged with developing the means and methods of providing efficient and effective training to crews and mission controllers when and where they need it.  We will do this while still providing training to astronauts and mission controllers the operate and utilize the ISS.  To do this, we will use ISS as a test bed just as ISS will be used as a test bed for new technologies in propulsion and spacecraft equipment.

This is a challenge that I and many of my people are eager to tackle.