Astronaut training

The opportunity to experience part of what it’s like to train as an astronaut is up for grabs as part of UK celebrations for World Space Week, taking place from 4–10 October.

NASA astronauts upside down

But what do budding spacefarers really have to go through before they get their wings?

Perhaps the most selective profession of all, astronaut candidates are required to be in excellent physical condition and psychological health, academically exceptional and great team players. And flight experience is preferred. The last round of selection for the European Space Agency (ESA), in 2009, attracted more than 8000 applicants for the six available positions, with one of them awarded to former British Army helicopter pilot Timothy Peake.

While the world’s various space agencies’ specific training regimes differ, they all have many common factors in preparing their astronauts to carry out complicated scientific or technical work as part of a multinational, multilingual team – all while weightless.

At ESA, which is geared towards operations on the International Space Station (ISS), the lucky, extraordinary few who pass the aptitude, medical and personality tests first go through 16 months of basic training at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany.

Having been given a run-through on the history and organisation of the major space agencies and on space law, the trainees are then brought up to a common minimum standard in technical disciplines such as propulsion and orbital mechanics. They then get an overview of the systems on the ISS, where they will have to live and work for up to months at a time.

Preparations for spacewalks are made via scuba diving – the nearest one can get to the same conditions while still earthbound. For weightlessness training, NASA makes use of a jet aircraft flown on a parabolic trajectory – colloquially known as a “vomit comet” for the effect it commonly has on its passengers.

After successful completion of this initial stage comes a year of advanced training, moving away from theory into more hands-on practice. The trainees learn to service and operate the various systems of the ISS, to pilot transport vehicles such as the Russian Soyuz using simulators, and how to carry out experiments in physiology, biology or astronomy aboard the ISS. This stage is conducted jointly with other ISS partner nations, and trainees will spend part of their time in the Canada, Japan, Russia and the US. They’re then assigned to a spaceflight.

The third and final stage of training is tailored to the particular mission for which the astronaut has been chosen, teaching each individual astronaut everything they need to know to perform their specific role successfully, and takes another year and a half.

After almost four years of intensive preparation, they’re ready to go into space.

If there’s an asteroid headed for Earth, and they’re absolutely insistent on training up Bruce Willis, this can probably be expedited.

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