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Training for the skies

Published : Feb 28, 2003 00:00 IST

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T+T-
Payload specialist Ilan Ramon trains on equipment at Spacehab in July 2002, before the flight aboard Columbia.-MARINO CANTRELL/GAMMA

Payload specialist Ilan Ramon trains on equipment at Spacehab in July 2002, before the flight aboard Columbia.-MARINO CANTRELL/GAMMA

Behind the making of every astronaut, lies a story of enormous hard work and extraordinary perseverance.

WHAT is the "right stuff" one should have to become an ASCAN (astronaut candidate)?

"You need a sense of humour to become an astronaut because you get locked up in simulators for long periods."

Dr. Mary L. Cleave, who flew in the space shuttle Atlantis in November 1985, might have said this half in jest. However, training to become an astronaut at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) in Houston, is no joke. It is an excruciating experience. It involves classes in shuttle systems, including guidance, navigation and orbital dynamics, theoretical subjects such as mathematics, geology, meteorology, astronomy and physics, learning to cope with micro-gravity (weightlessness) conditions, simulating space walks and so on. The astronauts-to-be receive training in mock-ups of space shuttles, and in safety aspects, which include ejection and emergency landing procedures. As part of an exhaustive and mind-boggling schedule, they learn scuba diving, parachute jumping, land and sea survival training, and practise to deploy satellites, repair or retrieve stranded satellites or fix a malfunctioning telescope.

Most of the astronauts are versatile persons, accomplished in a variety of fields. When this correspondent met Mary Cleave in December 1987 in Chennai and asked her what it took to become an ASCAN, she said: "The kind of people we are looking for are people who would like to do different things. Some people like doing one thing extremely well and they probably will be very happy doing it.

According to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website, the astronauts-to-be are taught a range of basic subjects before being given advanced training, which consists of 16 different courses covering shuttle-related crew training requirements. The training continues after a crew has been given a flight assignment; astronauts are generally eligible to fly in the shuttle one year after completing the basic training.

According to Mary Cleave, before a person is selected to become an astronaut, he or she has to undergo one year of general training. It involves "a lot of classwork. Within that class, people belong to different backgrounds. We have to go to survival schools. Then they put you to work," she said. Before Mary Cleave flew aboard Atlantis, she worked on shuttle avionics and integration, testing a variety of software, and was a CAPCOM or Capsule communicator for five shuttle missions (A Capsule communicator is a person who talks to the shuttle crew from the Earth). Later, she worked on the crew equipment for a year.

The shuttle crew come in four categories. According to NASA's website, first comes the commander, who pilots the shuttle. Commanders are responsible for the vehicle, its crew, the success of the mission and safety. The pilot who is the second-in-command, controls and operates the shuttle and assists the commander. (Commanders and pilots are generally ace or test pilots of the U.S. Services). The third category comprises the mission specialists who are responsible for coordinating all on-board operations. They perform on-board experiments, undertake space walks and handle payload. The fourth category includes payload specialists, who are professionals from the field of physics or the life sciences, and are skilled engineers who can operate the shuttle payload equipment. The payload specialist must undergo a comprehensive flight training course to become familiar with the shuttle systems, crew operations, housekeeping techniques and emergency procedures.

The Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS) is the primary system for training crews in all phases of a flight from T minus 30 minutes that is, 30 minutes before the rockets go off. At the JSC, the training at the SMS includes simulated events of launch, ascent, abort, orbit, rendezvous, docking with, say, an International Space Station, payload handling, undocking, de-orbiting, re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, approach, landing and rollout.

Astronaut training requires the efforts of hundreds of persons and numerous facilities. Pilot and mission specialist astronauts are trained to fly T-38 high-performance jet aircraft. Trainees receive basic knowledge of shuttle systems, including payloads, through lectures and briefings, and from textbooks and manuals. They are trained in waste management and stowage, television operations and extra vehicular activities. They learn to function in a weightless environment, which is simulated in an aircraft, which is a modified KC-135 four-engine jet transport and in a huge "neutral buoyancy" water tank at the JSC. "Training sessions in the KC-135 normally last from one to two hours, providing an exciting prelude to the sustained weightless experience of the space flight", the website says.

Longer periods of weightlessness are possible in the neutral buoyancy tank, or the Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF), at the JSC. A full-scale mock-up of the shuttle payload bay and airlock is placed in this 25-foot-deep water tank, helping trainees practise spacewalks, or in space jargon, extra vehicular activity (EVA). During practice, the trainees wear pressurised EVA suits.

N.C. Bhat and P. Radhakrishnan, ISRO scientists, were selected to be trained as astronauts in the U.S., in 1986. However, the Challenger tragedy occurred in January that year and all the shuttle flights were grounded for about three years.

Bhat, who is now Division Head, Spacecraft Mechanisms Group, ISRO Satellite Centre, Bangalore, told Frontline on February 5 that one Indian astronaut who would be eventually selected, would get to do two important experiments: deploy INSAT-1C built by Ford Aerospace and Communications Corporation and conduct vector-control experiments. The astronaut would conduct experiments in the biomedical field for the Indian Institute of Aviation Medicine, Bangalore. Biological tests of dehydrated items of food that are typically Indian would be done aboard the shuttle for the Defence Food Research Laboratory, Mysore. Important experiments in the field of lightning energetics would be done for the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad. The astronauts will also take photographs of the Indian region. In the words of Mary Cleave, "It is not just training. It is work... . Truly interesting."

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 28, 2003.)

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