Astronaut with his ride

Astronaut training beyond Russia and the USA

In this special two-part feature on astronaut training, we look at why nearly 40 nations have taken the trouble to send their own citizens where so few of us have gone before.

Space for everyone

35 years after the first 'handshake in space' between Russian and American space-farers, Mark Williamson explains what it means to be an astronaut outside Russia and the USA

We've all been on training courses, possibly to update our management skills, perhaps to study the finer points of a new software system. Some people are trained to work in unusual or hazardous environments – as pilots, divers or reactor engineers.

However, their training programmes are unlikely to major in 'maintaining fine motor control in conditions where objects are weightless but retain their inertia', and 'what to do if your protective clothing is pierced by a high-speed projectile'. Few and far between are the schemes that include a module on how to go to the toilet. Welcome to the world of astronaut training.

Much of received wisdom concerning astronaut selection and training comes to us from Tom Wolfe's book on the early American space programme, 'The Right Stuff', and the film that followed. Thus we recall, with a grimace of revulsion, the testing of human resilience to extremes of physical and mental torment from the high accelerations of the centrifuge to the indignity of the anal probe.

The process is somewhat less extreme today, but the basics are more or less the same, simply because they are governed by the physical environment. In essence, the easiest way to prepare astronauts for the accelerations experienced on launch and re-entry is to simulate them in a centrifuge; the best way to simulate weightlessness is to fly an aircraft on a parabolic trajectory; and the only way to simulate a vacuum is to pump the air out of a sealed chamber.

Although the major space agencies, including the European Space Agency (ESA), operate dedicated training aircraft – known colloquially, and for good reason, as 'vomit comets' – they provide only 20-25 seconds of weightlessness (more properly known as microgravity) at a time.

For longer periods of training, to allow more complex tasks to be practised for example, the astronauts are submerged with all their gear in a large swimming pool in which their buoyancy can be controlled to simulate microgravity.

But who are the people who sign up for this type of training course, and which organisations require them to be spun, dunked and probed to such an extent?

Russian and American space exploits are well known and most people recognise that Europe and China have sent astronauts into orbit, but few realise that citizens of 38 nations have breached the final frontier.

As of May 2010, 517 people had been into 'Space', defined by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) as above an altitude of 100km. Of these individuals, 514 have reached low Earth orbit (LEO), while the other three were launched on sub-orbital trajectories with insufficient energy to achieve orbital velocity. Only 24 have travelled beyond LEO to orbit the Moon and just 12 have walked on its surface.

Beyond the superpowers

While the numbers themselves suggest that Robert Heinlein's inspired book title 'Have Spacesuit, Will Travel' might be apt, there are very few nations with their own spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts. In fact, when China launched its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, on 15 October 2003, it became only the third nation to launch a man into Space using domestic technology. So, with the Space Age itself at 53 years and counting, access to Space has a long way to go before 'have spacesuit' becomes 'have spaceship'.

The first person of nationality other than Russian or American to fly in space was Vladimir Remek, a man whose name has since receded into the mists of space history. Remek was a Czechoslovakian army pilot, selected along with another Czech, two Poles and two East Germans for the initial flights of the Intercosmos programme, a political endeavour that allowed nations from Warsaw Pact countries to fly their nationals on Soviet spacecraft.

Remek flew on Soyuz 28 to the Salyut-6 space station in March 1978. Clearly, there was no way that Czechoslovakia could justify or afford its own astronaut training facilities for a single mission (the first Slovakian astronaut was not launched until 1999). So its candidate cosmonauts, and those of all other Intercosmos partners, including later the first French cosmonaut Jean-Loup Chrétien, were trained at the famous Star City cosmonaut training centre near Moscow.

Likewise, the first non-American astronaut to reach space aboard an American spacecraft, ESA's first flown astronaut Ulf Merbold, was trained to a large extent in the United States. This was necessary, of course, to familiarise him with the spacecraft on which he would be flying – the space shuttle. Merbold served as a payload specialist (essentially a non-pilot astronaut) on the ninth mission of the space shuttle. Launched in 1983, STS-9 carried ESA's Spacelab, a cylindrical module mounted in the payload bay which allowed experiments to be conducted in the microgravity environment of Earth orbit without the more expensive commitment to a free-flying space station.

In a move to 'tidy up' the image and reinforce the identity of European-manned spaceflight, in 1998 ESA member states took the decision to bring the national astronaut teams together in a single European Astronaut Corps (EAC). The process was concluded in 2002 with a Corps of 16 astronauts, based at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany.

Since then, according to ESA, the EAC has established itself as 'a centre of excellence for astronaut selection, training, medical support and surveillance, as well as support of astronauts and their families during preparation for and during flight'. This mention of 'families' reminds us that, although astronauts tend to work in a vacuum, they do not live in one.

Return on investment

So what do spacefaring nation-states get in return for their efforts and investment? The answers range from the pragmatic – it enhances their capabilities in science and technology – to matters of national pride. There is little doubt that nations with the capability to launch astronauts into space command a respect in global political circles that would be hard to achieve otherwise – short of the more politically destructive attainment of nuclear weaponry.

It is for these reasons that Europe, largely under the auspices of ESA, and Japan under the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, have spent the past few decades building their capabilities to the point where they are recognised, by Nasa, as partners. Now, other nations such as China, India and South Korea are striving to do likewise and, from 2010, even the UK had its own space agency!

Cooperation at last

However, as more and more nations seek to measure their citizens up for spacesuits, it is becoming clearer than ever that the future of manned space exploration lies in collaboration rather than competition. The International Space Station is arguably the most important manifestation of this, but it is far from the first example of international space cooperation.

That came some 35 years ago in July 1975 with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which featured the docking of an American Apollo spacecraft with a Russian Soyuz in low Earth orbit. Using a specially designed docking module, the two otherwise incompatible spacecraft were linked in a symbolic coming together of the Cold War powers, effectively on neutral territory. The handshake between Tom Stafford and Alexei Leonov (incidentally, the first man to walk in space) was an iconic spectacle that those who did not live through the period would find difficult to comprehend.

The mission – the result of a diplomatic agreement signed by US President Nixon and Soviet Premier Kosygin in May 1972 – was above all a political initiative, but it marked one of the most intensive training periods in space history. Not only did the respective spacefarers need to be familiar with each others' spacecraft, they had to be able to communicate (the Apollo crew was said to have spent more than 1,000 hours learning to speak a smattering of Russian).

With the retirement of Nasa's space shuttle fleet planned for later this year, America will be obliged to cooperate even more closely with Russia, as its only option for getting its astronauts to the ISS and back will be to buy seats on the Russian Soyuz. This marks a complete reversal of the 'space race' mentality that began the era of manned spaceflight in 1961, transforming political posturing into a sort of 'commerce of convenience'. Space has never been so down-to-earth.


Do you have what it takes?

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has just concluded a national recruitment campaign to bolster its astronaut corps, for which two were selected from a field of 5,000 applicants.

A'gruelling 18-month elimination process tested just about every imaginable aspect of the candidates' physical, mental and spatial orientation abilities. New simulators and tests were engineered specifically for this recruitment campaign, taking into consideration Canada's latest addition to the International Space Station (ISS): Dextre, a hand-like attachment for the famous Canadarm-2.

'We were looking for a bit of 'McGyverism' in our candidates,' says Stephane Carbine, referring to an American TV character known for his ability to improvise complex devices. Carbine, the campaign manager for the astronaut selection programme told E&T: 'Our chosen astronauts have to be able to think on their feet and perform in highly stressed environments, despite the fatigue, despite the unknowns.'

Three examinations were developed specifically for this campaign, some in conjunction with the Canadian Department of Defence and Navy. One involved the 'Dunker', a modified helicopter cockpit suspended 6m above the sea, from which candidates would be dropped unceremoniously into the water. They had around 30 seconds to follow precise radio instructions, unlatch themselves and quickly make their way out of a drowning capsule.

In 'Damage Control', the candidates were huddled into the simulated underdeck of a submarine. First, in full fire-fighting gear, they battled flames reaching 200°C; then, as the fire was extinguished, the compartment was flooded and a new rescue operation began. Exhausted and under thermal shock, the candidates were being prepared for the unforeseeable emergencies of space travel.

Dextrous Dextre

The Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, known as Dextre, is a new addition to the ISS. It has two arms, each with seven joints, pivots at the waist, and can handle operations previously performed only by spacewalking astronauts.

At the end of each arm is an orbital replacement unit that holds a payload or tool with a vice-like grip. Dextre has force sensors and torque in its grip with automatic compensation to ensure the payload glides smoothly into its mounting fixture. To grab objects, each unit has a retractable motorised socket wrench to turn bolts and mate or detach mechanisms, as well as a camera and lights for close-up viewing. A retractable umbilical connector can provide power, data and video connections to payloads.

Operating Dextre and the Arm is no easy feat, so the CSA provides training in robotics and spatial awareness to astronauts and ground controllers. Viqar Abassi, training programme technical manager and designer of the simulators, says that operators need to be skilled in 3D modelling and be able to reconstruct an image on the video projectors in the control centre. It is difficult, explains Abassi, to manoeuvre without line of sight, and mistakes could damage a part of the ISS or even break the Arm itself, while accidentally released payloads would add to the space debris population.

The CSA created a mock-up of the station's Mobile Servicing System (MSS) at its facility near Montreal. It is used to train astronauts in software and hardware components of the Arm and Dextre, the various operating modes, camera operations, safety guidelines, payload handling, malfunction/failure handling, and more.

The Virtual Operations Training Environment immerses trainees in a virtual reality where robotic arm movements can be observed and controlled in 3D. Its workstation is connected to a software simulation of the robotics systems, using technology similar to real-time flight simulators and modern video games.

Monitors display different viewing angles, just as they would on the ISS. It's just like operating a video game, claims Abassi. So perhaps future recruitment pools could be replenished with X-Box mavericks.

Who goes?

In the end, it's not the candidates' physical abilities or stamina, teamwork or education that decides who gets to go. It is their psychological constitution that matters most.

CSA's final selection round involves a series of psychological and psychiatric interviews and tests. Technical malfunctions and catastrophes, separation from family, friends and even the ground one is used to walking on, long periods of isolation and confined spaces are all cause for mental breakdown, anxiety and panic attacks.

So, 18 months into the selection process, the lucky two were announced. Jeremy Hansen and David St Jacques were found to be made of the 'right stuff' to replenish the ranks of Canadian astronauts.

They now face a 12-month advanced training course and six months of ISS expedition specific training, completed at the CSA, the Johnson Space Center and the Yuri Gagarin cosmonaut centre in Russia. But the hardest test of all, it seems, is to finally catch a rocket into Space.

Humourously documented by Mike Mullane in his memoir entitled 'Riding Rockets: the outrageous tales of a Space Shuttle astronaut', waiting for an assignment can last several years, with periods full of suspicion and bouts of depression.

Why is it so difficult to become an astronaut, when a rich civilian tourist can go to space? 'A space tourist will never be asked to become a mission specialist, pilot the spacecraft or perform EVAs,' explains Carbine. 'There is no room for mistakes in space. You need to have a bit of 'McGyverism'.'

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