Selected from more than 3,500 applicants, NASA’s new astronaut candidates arrive at a pivotal moment in the history of human space exploration. The agency’s bold ambition is to rocket humans beyond the International Space Station for the first time in more than 40 years. The question is when.
In September, a panel of space experts and former astronauts chaired by former Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine told the White House that a budgetary boost of an estimated $3 billion annually would allow NASA to develop the necessary spacecraft to take astronauts to the moon, near-Earth asteroids and ultimately to Mars. Anything less, the committee concluded, would delay a moon landing until at least the late 2030s.
Whether NASA gets extra financial support from Congress or not, now is a crucial time for the agency to fundamentally reevaluate how it prepares its new recruits for the rigors of deep space. Plans call for the construction of a new crew capsule called Orion to replace the space shuttle in 2015, plus two rockets and a lunar lander. This suite of hardware, known as Constellation, is billed as the Swiss Army knife of space exploration, capable of flying to multiple destinations and performing multiple missions. And that’s what NASA expects of these future astronauts, too. They will be trained as jacks-of-all-trades who can do experiments on the ISS, erect an outpost on the moon, or collect samples from an asteroid that’s hurtling through space. They are NASA’s first new astronaut class in five years, the first chosen since the Constellation development program began, and the first ever to be chosen solely for long-duration missions in space. NASA isn’t just tasked with reinventing its hardware; to get beyond low-Earth orbit, it must reinvent its astronauts.
Like the astronauts before them, recruits will take an outdoor survival course in Maine, spend up to two weeks living in an underwater lab, endure altitude chambers, and struggle through flight mechanics. But for deep space, astronauts will need new training entirely, perhaps including spending weeks, even months, in confinement and isolation.
A trip to Mars will take humans so far from home that Earth will look no bigger than a star. The distance is so great that in a September New York Times op-ed, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, went so far as to propose that, to save fuel, astronauts perhaps shouldn’t come home at all. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, an ardent believer in the colonization of Mars, has also floated this idea. For a trip that long, intense psychological preparation is critical.
The Mars Society, a space-advocacy group, has conducted a series of simulated Mars missions involving 80 crews at a desert station and a dozen crews at an even more remote Arctic base. Robert Zubrin, the society’s president and author of The Case for Mars, recommends that NASA conduct experiments to see which astronaut teams work well together when tasked with field exploration in adverse conditions for months on end. “You put them through missions, and you see who is tough and cheerful and team-spirited,” Zubrin says. “If you lose your sense of humor on the way to Mars, you’re finished.” One of the most important lessons learned during the field missions is that some people perform well on one team but not on another. “It’s because of the mix,” he explains.Jason Kring, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who studies the human factors of spaceflight, agrees with Zubrin that intensive training here on Earth is a must. He also suggests that NASA include a clinical psychologist on the crew to help mitigate potential conflicts. “What to us would be a minor problem in an office environment can become a big deal after six to eight months with the same people,” he says.
NASA is already making efforts to screen more carefully for psychological flaws, after the meltdown of Lisa Nowak, the shuttle astronaut who goes on trial next month for attempting to kidnap a fellow astronaut’s girlfriend. It’s not hard to imagine how such instability could sink a space mission.
While everyone in the class of 2009 has an advanced degree in engineering, science or math (“extensive experience flying high-performance jet aircraft” was also a plus), the most sought-after quality was the ability to play well with others. Today, an astronaut with the right stuff is someone who does not get frazzled or grumpy when he spends seven months trapped in a flying office with co-workers who may not even speak his language—an office in which his and his companions’ recycled sweat and urine is a beverage, the toilet clogs, and a serious mistake means they all could die.
Of course, astronauts will need extra preparation for the physical challenges too. During the trip itself, they will be subjected to high doses of radiation, raising their odds of getting cancer later in life, and they will lose bone density. “The worst-case scenario would be a Mars crew that steps off the vehicle and their bones are too brittle to hold their weight,” Kring says. He suggests that NASA may eventually need to create a new category of astronauts trained for “ultra-long-duration” missions. “Thirty-six months in space is a lot different than six months,” he says.
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