Here’s Exactly What NASA Training is Like For Astronauts
Photograph by Ian Allen
NASA astronauts go through hell before going to work high in the heavens. What they learn during training can help you perform back here on Earth
How many astronauts does it take to change a lightbulb? By the look of things on a recent morning in the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center in Houston: two.
Plus hundreds of support personnel, including 14 divers suspended in the water with video cameras, all manner of tech support poolside, and a cadre of coffee-sipping flight operations specialists watching on screens in a control room overlooking the scene.
It’s 9:11 a.m. when Col. Nick Hague, 42, encased in his 300-pound space suit, is lowered by crane into a pool that measures 202 feet long, 102 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. Submerged in it is a replica of the $75-billion-plus International Space Station, or ISS. For the next six hours, Hague and German astronaut Alexander Gerst will simulate an extravehicular activity (EVA), a.k.a. spacewalk, to perform maintenance tasks.
This fall, Hague will ride a Russian rocket to the ISS and begin a six-month stint. He’s one of just eight members of NASA’s class of 2013, and first in the class to be assigned a mission. On this simulated spacewalk he’ll adjust (not literally change) a light on the robotic arm of the $1.7 billion service system, a task that astronauts currently on the ISS will do eight days later. He’ll also upgrade some batteries, a job he’ll later take on in orbit. The spacewalk (a misnomer—it’s a hands-only climb across the station’s exterior) is a physical challenge. Astronauts clench their hands thousands of times as they loosen and tighten bolts and screws, chafing fingertips, knuckles, and collarbones. It’s the metabolic equivalent of running a marathon. There are no breaks; they wear diapers under their suits.
It’s a painstakingly long process. Every move seems to be in slow motion, and every action is called out over the radio. Astronauts have major constraints on the speed of their movements due to the pressure in the suits, as well as the amount of force they can place on the structure. It’s laborious yet intricate work, akin to doing mechanical surgery while wearing oven mitts and floating upside down. And an EVA requires sustained focus, says instructor Grier Wilt, NASA’s EVA flight controller. “You’re handling critical hardware with a unique set of tools and equipment while maneuvering in microgravity under the extreme conditions of space.” If you look down, you see Earth 250 miles below, sliding by at 17,500 miles an hour. Every 45 minutes the sun rises or sets, blasting you with light or pitching you into darkness.
Rehearsals like this one in the pool allow flight controllers to assess hand and foot placements, tether locations, tool selection, and overall task choreography. Afterward there’s a debriefing. “We were able to successfully evaluate the body positioning and orientation for working on the robotic arm,” says Hague. “It was a short-notice task that was added to support a planned spacewalk. This checkout of procedures and techniques helped make the EVA a success.” Astronauts typically do nine spacewalks during initial training and another nine after they’re assigned a mission. This was Hague’s sixth of the final nine. “The aim is to constantly learn, improve, and be more efficient,” says Wilt.
That’s NASA’s philosophy, encapsulated: constant learning. As Tom Wolfe notes in The Right Stuff, a career in flying is an infinite series of tests, like climbing a ziggurat—an extraordinarily high, steep Babylonian pyramid. Simply surviving the vetting process for the program is arduous. Hague was one of four men and four women chosen from 6,113 applicants in 2013. (The 2017 class drew 18,353 applicants for 12 spots. Selections are made roughly every four years.)
A NASA committee picks about 120 candidates who endure a week of interviews and mental and physical tests. Then that group is whittled down to 40 to 60, who must ace more interviews, excel in team-building exercises, and pass additional medical tests. These are the fastest of the fast learners. The chosen ones then embark on a two-year training program that encompasses everything from flight training to space station operations to rodent dissections. (Typically, 250 experiments are active on the space station at any given time.) There are also extreme survival courses—both civilian wilderness programs and military training for crash landings. And you need to learn Russian.
After graduating, trainees wait one to seven years before being assigned a mission. The right stuff still demands the moxie, reflexes, and coolness of earlier years, but now it also embraces softer skills. It’s about “space travel resource management,” says Kathryn Bolt, NASA’s chief training officer. “How do you work in a team? How do you take care of others and yourself? How do you communicate? How do you listen?” Meet the new breed of space explorers who may one day go to Mars.
COL. NICK HAGUE
Motto: “Be part of something larger than yourself and never give up.”
At first blush, Air Force Col. Nick Hague seems like the prototypical astronaut. Ever since he was “real little,” growing up in Hoxie, Kansas, he gazed at the stars and dreamed of going up there. In the military, he worked his way up to test pilot and flew the F-16, F-15, and other stray cats and dogs. “You go out and see if the plane is controllable or if it falls out of the sky,” he says. “It’s interesting work.” He’s also a graduate of MIT, where he studied aeronautical engineering and built spacecraft components. “Grad school taught me how to handle complicated concepts and models,” he says.
Hague applied to NASA in 2003 and 2009 before finally gaining acceptance in 2013. Those initial failures only inspired him to strive harder. “You can’t guess what the selection committee finds most valuable,” he says. “The process is to be yourself: I followed my passion and found success in my career. That brought opportunities.”
“When I’m scrunched up in the Soyuz on the launchpad in Baikonur in September, I know my heart rate and blood pressure will be elevated,” Hague says. “I’m expecting it.” Jangled nerves are normal when you’re perched on a rocket atop tens of thousands of gallons of kerosene and liquid oxygen fuel about to blast off and hit 1,200 miles per hour in 70 seconds. Embracing fear helps subdue uncertainty, explains Jim Picano, Ph.D., NASA’s senior operational psychologist. Moreover, astronauts are trained to feel confident that they’re prepared to handle anything that might go wrong. NASA is famous for its “next-worst-case” protocol for emergencies. The instructors drill worst-case and next-worst-case scenarios over and over. If something goes wrong, the astronauts have an emergency protocol and a plan to execute.
Strengthen Your Team
Success depends on everyone performing at their peak, so astronauts are trained to invest in their teammates. We picture the laconic astronaut, self-reliant and concise with his language. Sure, but the team needs more. “It’s providing opportunities for colleagues to talk,” Hague says. “We all have bad days. It sure helps if someone throws his arm over your shoulder and says, ‘You’re having a rough go. What’s going on? Let’s grab a drink and talk.’ Or you say, ‘I want to take your mind off things. Let’s do something else.'”
Know Your Flaws
Self-awareness is crucial. Hague knows he can be a hangry mess, so he keeps nuts on hand. At 6’1″, he’s tall for an astronaut, so he does yoga weekly. “On the Soyuz, I’ll have my knees in my chest for three or four hours. I need to maintain flexibility.” And he pulls strength from his wife and two young sons. “There are moments when my boys understand what I’m doing,” he says. “But for the most part, I’m just the goofy, clueless guy who doesn’t know anything and embarrasses them. I’m still just Dad, and that’s pretty cool.”
LT.COL. ANDREW MORGAN
Motto: “Always do right; this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” —Mark Twain
He’s neither an aviator nor an engineer, and that’s what makes Army Lt. Col. Andrew Morgan, M.D., 42, unlike many astronaut candidates. But that didn’t stop the New Castle, Pennsylvania, native from gaining acceptance to NASA on his first attempt.
Morgan graduated from West Point and earned a doctorate in medicine from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. In a 19-year military career, he served as a physician with special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and completed such elite courses as Special Forces Assessment and Selection, Ranger School, Combat Diver training, and Military Freefall Parachutist school. “Being a bit different made me stand out. My special skills are medicine and having experience working in small, high-functioning teams in extreme environments.”
Seek New Experiences
As part of his NASA training, Morgan had to learn to fly a plane solo. That meant attending Navy flight school with kids in their 20s fresh out of college. “It was intense: Being alone in an aircraft for the first time is intimidating,” he says. “With the absence of human voices, I heard engine and cockpit noises I’d never heard and knew the inputs were all my own.”
NASA has always valued aviation training as an analogue for space flight—it requires operating a complex machine, flawless knowledge of emergency protocols, and crew coordination in situations when error can mean death. Find your version of flight school—forge resilience by challenging yourself to learn something new with a cohort of younger, fitter people.
Learn to Prioritize
Serving with Rangers and Green Berets in training and combat, Morgan realized that effective leaders care deeply about their team, and he made it a drill “to think of others first,” he says. “It helps you avoid falling into a trap of ‘self first’ and the tendency to focus on your own discomfort. And by serving others first—whether it’s mentoring a teammate or helping a junior staffer with a personal issue—you’re prioritizing the team, and that’s the right thing to do. If a priority is self-serving, then your tactics are often not aligned.”
That team-first approach extends to his own family and work-life balance. “My wife and four children support me and are extremely understanding,” he says, “so I’m home as often as I can be for dinner because I want to be there for their lives. “
Be Smart About Checklists
Morgan speaks passable French and was confident he could pick up Russian. And he did. But he found some of the technical material for the space station’s systems harder to digest, though it was in English.
“You need more than a user’s-guide understanding. You need to know how to fix something,” he says. The discipline of following checklists was ingrained in him from his parachuting and pilot training, so he came to appreciate NASA’s use of checklists to prevent user error in complex procedures.
And not-so-complex ones, back home with the most important team of all. “When my family vacates the house for a week, I run the checklist,” he says. “It adds a structure and formality to completing a task. And we remember to turn on the alarm.”
LT. CDR. JOSH CASSADA
Motto: “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astronauts typically don’t become untethered from the space station during a spacewalk, but if it happened, he or she would know how to handle it, thanks to a virtual reality simulation. In a small room at the Johnson Space Center, Navy Lt. Cdr. Josh Cassada, Ph.D., 44, is wearing a new Oculus Rift VR headset and toggling a joystick to control his jetpack thrusters. Within 20 seconds of being cast off, he’s safely back to the station. All astronauts routinely do this test, even in orbit. Cassada, who hails from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, grew up blasting moon shots on the diamond.
“My first love was baseball,” he says. “Next it was science and aviation.” At 26, Cassada earned a physics Ph.D. from the University of Rochester—with five weeks to spare before the Navy’s mandatory age cutoff for pilots. He flew missions over Iraq and later became an instructor at the Navy’s test pilot school. NASA rejected him once, but he continued to serve as a Navy test pilot and was eventually accepted into the program.
Take Stuff Apart
Growing up, Cassada learned a lesson that turned out to be pretty useful: If something breaks, you fix it. “It was partly because I was broke,” he says. Still, he enjoyed discovering how things work. “With YouTube and a soldering iron, I could conquer the world,” he jokes. “If the lawn mower hits a root, you’ve just got to get in there and fix the flywheel that sheared off—concepts you may not be familiar with,” he says, speaking from experience. “When you disassemble something in your living room, you’d better know how to put it back together.”
Fixing things is core to the astronauts’ mission. For the earthbound, it can hone resilience and self-confidence.
Get It Right
In grad school, Cassada did more elaborate experiments, studying quarks and collaborating with scientists from 40 universities. “I learned to build an argument and then defend it,” he says. “There’s nothing physicists love more than pointing out flaws in someone’s analysis. It’s not about being argumentative. It’s about the need to get it right.”
Respect the Hardware
In the Navy, Cassada flight-tested P-3 and P-8 planes. “Ideally, nothing in a flight test should be exciting,” he says. “You collaborate with a team of engineers, mechanics, and programmers, sometimes for years for a one-hour flight. You work really hard to come up with a plan to identify risk and minimize it. Still, if it’s the first time you’re flying a new vehicle and you don’t feel scared, then you’re not doing it right.”
CDR. VICTOR GLOVER
Motto: “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
There’s a regular gym for astronauts at Johnson Space Center. But there’s also another gym featuring the equipment modified for zero gravity that they’ll eventually use on the space station: a treadmill, spin bike, and exercise rack with a flywheel and pistons along with barbells and cables.
Navy Cdr. Victor Glover, 41, is doing a modified workout, performing deadlifts, squats, and sprint intervals. Glover jokes that in zero G, he worries that his sweat droplets will float all over the space station. An F/A-18 fighter pilot and graduate of the Air Force Test Pilot School and California Polytechnic State University, Glover grew up wanting to fly the space shuttle. The 1986 Challenger explosion didn’t deter him. “We all watched it at school,” he says. “I realized space exploration was a big deal—something important.”
NASA’s strength and conditioning specialist, Mark Guilliams, C.S.C.S., has been designing workouts for astronauts for 20 years. On the ISS they train daily to maintain strength, bone density, and cardio fitness. In just six months of zero gravity, astronauts can lose up to 20 percent of their lower-body strength. So Guilliams emphasizes variations of the deadlift and squat, total-body lifts that target areas that rapidly waste away in space. The astronauts also do interval sprints (100, 200, 400, and 800 meters) and steady-state cardio both on the treadmill and on a bike that has no handlebars—a core-stability challenge.
Know Your Role
With nearly 20 years of flying experience, the debrief is second nature to Glover. But at NASA he’s learned to listen even better. “By magnifying and analyzing your missteps, you learn faster,” he says. At a meeting, for instance, be aware of priorities; ask yourself if what you plan to say will add value. Glover says survival training taught him role flexibility, to know when to lead and when to support. At a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Colorado, the astronauts were empowered to make decisions; everyone had a role to play, bringing clarity to the mission.
Military deployment includes rituals like writing your will and letters to be opened by loved ones if you’re killed. Glover has done that, and he’s landed an F/A-18 in the dark on an aircraft carrier. So he’s ready for the risks of space travel. It helps that he’s committed to spending time with his wife and four girls and is usually in bed by 9 p.m. NASA sends care packages to astronauts in orbit and allows calls and family video chats. Daily fitness training boosts well-being and reduces stress. On future expeditions—such as to Mars—real-time communication won’t be possible, so NASA is working on solutions, such as virtual reality role-playing and time-release care packages.
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