Three test pilots. Two flight surgeons. One molecular biologist. A flight controller, a Pentagon staffer and a CIA intelligence officer. These are the nine people chosen by NASA to be America's next astronauts. Late this summer they reported to Houston along with two Japanese pilots, a Japanese doctor, a Canadian pilot and a Canadian physicist who will train alongside NASA's class of 2009. Call them the lucky 14.
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.
Tough and Cheerful
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.
Bugging Out: Astronauts test a prototype of a six-legged lunar buggy at Moses Lake in Washington.
This is not part of the Boot Camp. These are Astronauts, I think. Boot Camp might be exciting but I don't think fun describes the training.
It seems to me that to much money goes into training.
What is the estimated cost for training the 2009 class of astronauts?
Do all of the trainees get paid the same salary?
So it looks like we got rid of those Jupiter Direct clowns. Better off without their kind in NASA, right? Anyone really think they can train anyone comprehensively for a mere 3 billion? They cant put dumb mass up 4 times in a year for that now. They are so much better off now that they have gotten rid of those people who spent so much of their own time to come up with ways to get more out of less.
NASA has to get beyond the shuttle to make progress. I don't really think a capsule is a good way to go. The capsule will be cheaper, faster to develop, and can meet NASA's short-term goals. The real problem with the rocket and capsule combo is that it is not a step forward with technology, but simply recycling and revamping old technology. I just don't see how it will make a trip beyond the moon more likely.NASA has seen the retirement of the shuttles for a long time and yet they have done nothing to prepare for this. Now we will have to depend on Russia to get into space during this gap before the Orion capsule is ready. Perhaps the Orion capsule is a small step in the right direction, but it seems to me that we are more concerned with money and with maintaining NASA as an organization rather than with true exploration. Many people see NASA in a terrible light and think only bad things of the space program, but I think that it is important for us so that we can advance forward with human technological development. Simply put, we are creatures of exploration and great curiosity.
LMAO! Yeah, we'll go tot he moon all right, once we find out how to get people alive across the Van Allen Belt.
One day we may get to the moon. Hell one day we may get a few miles passed the Earth. But I will say this, they have their artists and photogs lined up well in advance for the press releases and "real live footage from the Moon!" Ahhhahhaha
Hey, anyone find the "original lunar landing" film reels yet? Hmmmm????
SpaceX has a capsule called the Dragon which will carry up to 7 astronauts when it is man-rated. It is in final testing for delivering cargo to ISS, and would take 3 yrs from start of funding for man-rating to be ready to take over for the Shuttle. www.spacex.com/dragon.php
It is expected to cost half of what Soyuz charges per pound, and is far more advanced and "luxurious".
mc99, back to your cave. The VA Belts are not killer barriers; transiting them increased the astronauts' odds of getting cancer by about 1 in 1000. They were quite willing to accept those odds.
Don't be an idiot mcc99... We all know they went to the moon. Everyone in the scientific community with any sort of credibility knows that at the height of the Van Allen belt radiation, it isn't even enough to pierce the aluminum skin of the craft. You make yourself look bad saying that, though I know it's more than likely just a lame attempt at trolling.
I've wanted to be an astronaut since I was kid. But seeing how much work is involved in the preparation I no longer want to.
I used to want be an astronaut....now i'v lost intrest about space in general, still lot's of good stuff still left to exploit on earth...think practicaly.....
to far away = low profit (if any)
and yes im extremely ignorant of the "social and artistic value" and curiosity that supporters preach about.
I know that I wouldn't be able to keep my cool even two or three weeks in that capsule thing... even with my friends... unless thay added a recreation room... lol.
It’s not hard to imagine how such instability could sink a space mission.
Anyone really think they can train anyone comprehensively for a mere 3 billion?
@tidbitz11: me too:-) The question is how much do you want to be an astronaut to deal with the preparation:-) My problem is I'm in general not healthy enough for that.