Could You Cut It as an Astronaut?

Preparing for space involves a punishing training program — think you could pass these tests?
A Centrifugal Simulator used by astronauts when training
A Centrifugal Simulator used by astronauts © NASA
By Will Gray

To get a real taste of space, professional astronauts not only have to pass a strict vetting system but also spend at least two years training to learn how to live and work in this unique environment. Even then, three-quarters of them will suffer from space motion sickness, and many will experience post-flight hallucinations because of the way microgravity messes with the balance system.

So obviously, an astronaut's training regimen includes a whole host of challenging tests. Here are some of them:

Prepare for liftoff (pictured above)

Teaches: How to handle rocket propulsion

Without the correct training, huge rocket liftoff forces can send astronauts into a G-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC). Blood flow to the eyes reduces first, causing loss of color perception (a "grayout") and tunnel vision, before the brain finally shuts down.

This machine takes astronauts' tolerance from a normal 4-6 Gs to a massive 9 Gs by spinning them faster and faster until they can’t take anymore.


Learning how to deal with a loss of control in the Multi-Axis Trainer
Re-entry is a hair-raising experience © Huntsville Space Camp

Cope with re-entry

Teaches: How to deal with a loss of control

This machine simulates the disorientation felt in a flat spin during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere by spinning its occupant in random directions.

It was used in older missions to help astronauts cope with disorientation and to teach them how to recover an out-of-control spacecraft using joysticks. It is now used as part of the Space Camp training programs at NASA’s public space-training center in Huntsville, Alabama.


Astronauts train in an anti-gravity simulator
Waiting for the drop aboard a parabolic flight © NASA

Survive the "vomit comet"

Teaches: How to get used to weightlessness

A reduced-gravity aircraft can replicate the space environment using a parabolic flight technique that involves climbing at increments of 45 degrees before leveling off and then descending in stages of 30 degree dives. This creates up to 25 seconds of weightlessness during the ascent. Astronauts will repeat this process up to 60 times in one flight, making for one bumpy ride, which explains why the flight is known as the "vomit comet."

Incredible Adventures, based in Sarasota, Florida, offers the general public single-person experiences in Aurora Aerospace's Rockwell Commander.


Astronauts have to learn to walk in space
Water recreates the feeling of weightlessness © NASA

Work at zero gravity

Teaches: How to operate in extreme conditions

The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory is the world’s largest indoor pool, and it is here where astronauts learn to work in a weightless environment, spending 10 hours under water for every hour they walk in space.

Fully suited, they are craned in to float around sunken spacecraft replicas with a depth of up to 40 feet. But it is not quite like the real thing as objects resist force under the water, whereas in space they just float away.


Virtual reality training for astronauts
Astronauts also use virtual reality equipment © NASA

Move around on the moon

Teaches: How to space walk

At the Johnson Space Center’s Virtual Reality Laboratory in Houston, astronauts put on an immersive headset and are transported into imaginary space situations where they can rehearse their duties before the real thing.

A long way from the Apollo mission training, this high-tech experience, complete with motion gloves and body sensors, enables astronauts to try out vital techniques, such as walking and operating equipment in alien settings, before their life depends on getting them right.


Eating can be difficult in astronauts
Eating in space can be testing © NASA

Eat a balanced diet

Teaches: How to stomach space food

Silver packets stuck down onto a tray with Velcro may not look gourmet, but they do the job. Nutritionists work with astronauts to create a suitable diet, and although some fresh goods are taken onboard, the menu is mostly made up irradiated, thermostabilized or dehydrated food stuffs.

The main dietary problems in space are reduced vitamin D due to lack of UV light, high iron due to blood thinning and low calcium absorption, which can lead to a loss of 1 percent to 2 percent of bone mass each month.


Tough winter survival training for astronauts
Tough winter survival training © State Organization "Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center"

Survive in the wildest locations

Teaches: How to get by in a remote environment

Although mission control aims to plot a sensible trajectory back to Earth, if it all goes wrong an astronaut could end up submerged in the sea or pitched into an Arctic winter until help arrives. To give them the skills they need to survive, astronauts are sent to train in remote locations with their space pods.


How to deal with extreme conditions training
How to deal with extreme conditions © NASA

Land on an asteroid

Teaches: How to prepare for the next frontier

This is Aquarius, the world's only undersea research station, where NASA sends its Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) teams to live for up to three weeks at a time.

In this pressurized home, some 59 feet below the sea off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, the NEEMO astronauts train for long-term projects like trips to Mars and landing on asteroids while also training for the worst mission possible: rescuing an incapacitated astronaut.

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