Monday, October 26, 2009

Inside Astronaut Boot Camp

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.  Here's what deep space training consists of:

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.

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.

Astronauts.  Are nuts.

[Link: PopularScience]

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