Astronaut Training: Now the Fun Begins

Earlier this week, NASA announced the selection of eight astronaut candidates from among more than 6,000 applicants.

But, what exactly does being astronaut candidate mean? What do they need to go through to become actual astronauts? Turns out the answer is: A lot!

The following excerpt from a NASA document summarizes the training they will go through over the next two years and what their responsibilities as astronauts will be once they successfully complete it.
Astronaut Selection and Training

Astronaut undergoes training. (Credit: NASA)
Astronaut undergoes training. (Credit: NASA)

Selected applicants are designated Astronaut Candidates and are assigned to the Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. The Astronaut Candidates undergo a training and evaluation period lasting approximately 2 years. During this time they will participate in the basic Astronaut Candidate training program, which is designated to develop the knowledge and skills required for formal mission training upon selection for a flight. Military Astronaut Candidates with a jet piloting background maintain proficiency in NASA aircraft during their candidate period.

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

As part of the Astronaut Candidate training program, candidates are required to complete military water survival before beginning their flying syllabus, and become SCUBA qualified to prepare them for spacewalk training. Consequently, all Astronaut Candidates are required to pass a swimming test during their first month of training. They must swim 3 lengths of a 25-meter pool without stopping, and then swim 3 lengths of the pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes with no time limit. They must also tread water continuously for 10 minutes wearing a flight suit.

Candidates are also exposed to the problems associated with high (hyperbaric) and low (hypobaric) atmospheric pressures in the altitude chambers and learn to deal with emergencies associated with these conditions. In addition, Astronaut Candidates are given exposure to the microgravity of space flight during flights in a modified jet aircraft as it performs parabolic maneuvers that produce periods of weightlessness for about 20 seconds. The aircraft then returns to the original altitude and the sequence is repeated up to 40 times in a day.

Final selection as an astronaut will depend upon satisfactory completion of the training and evaluation period. Graduation from the Astronaut Candidate Program will require successful completion of the following: International Space Station systems training, Extravehicular Activity skills training, Robotics skills training, Russian Language training, and aircraft flight readiness training. Civilian candidates who successfully complete the training and evaluation and are selected as astronauts become permanent Federal employees. Civilian candidates who are not selected as astronauts may be placed in other positions within NASA, depending upon agency requirements and workforce constraints at that time. Equal opportunity in employment means opportunity not just for some but for all. NASA provides equal opportunity in Federal employment regardless of race, color, gender, national origin, religion, age, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, status as a parent, or gender identity.

Astronaut Formal Training

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

The astronauts begin their formal training program during their year of candidacy by reading training manuals and by taking computer-based training lessons on the various vehicle systems.

The next step in the training process involves the spacecraft systems trainers. The astronauts are trained to operate each system, to recognize malfunctions, and to perform corrective actions if needed.

The Sonny Carter Training Facility, or Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), provides controlled neutral buoyancy operations in the facility water tank to simulate the zero-g or weightless condition that is experienced by the crew during space flight. It is an essential tool for the design, testing, and development of the International Space Station and future NASA programs. For the astronaut, the facility provides important preflight training in becoming familiar with planned crew activities and with the dynamics of body motion under weightless conditions in order to perform spacewalks.

Several full-scale mockups and trainers are also used to train astronauts. These mockups and trainers are used for onboard systems orientation and habitability training. Astronauts practice meal preparation, equipment stowage, trash management, use of cameras, and experiment operations.

Astronauts, who are pilots maintain flying proficiency by flying 15 hours per month in NASA’s fleet of two-seat T38 jets. Non-pilot astronauts fly a minimum of 4 hours per month. The T38 is used for flight readiness training to help the astronauts become adjusted to the flight environment, including the g-forces experienced on launch.

The astronaut training is designed to prepare personnel for space flight on the International Space Station, Russian Soyuz spacecraft, NASA’s Orion vehicle, and future spacecraft.

Astronaut Responsibilities

Credit: NASA

Astronauts are involved in all aspects of on-orbit operations of the International Space Station (ISS). This includes extravehicular activities (spacewalks), robotics operations using the remote manipulator system, experiment operations, and on board maintenance tasks. Astronauts are required to have a detailed knowledge of the space station systems, as well as detailed knowledge of the operational characteristics, mission requirements and objectives, and supporting systems and equipment for each experiment on their assigned missions. Long-duration missions aboard the space station generally last from 3 to 6 months. Training for long-duration missions is arduous and takes approximately 2 to 3 years beyond the initial training and evaluation period. This training requires extensive travel, including long periods in other countries training with our international partners. Trips to and from the space station will initially be aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicle and potentially aboard other future spacecraft presently being developed.