Behind the Scenes with a NASA Astronaut: Launching a New Career
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
NASA astronauts are often selected at the peak of their careers. My brother-in-law, Andrew (Drew) Morgan, is an emergency physician that was finishing up a fellowship in sports medicine. And that's only after graduating from West Point Military Academy, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and serving overseas with the Army Special Forces. I've learned much about the US space program as I've followed his new career and I've gotten lots of questions from those around me. I hope this post helps to answer some of those questions.
According to NASA, though, the only requirements for astronaut applicants are as follows:
-A bachelor's degree in engineering, science, or mathematics
-3+ years of professional experience in a related field
-The ability to pass a NASA astronaut physical exam
It seems so doable, right? Oh yeah, you should probably have some additional specialized skills such as 1000+ hours of flight experience and survival training or SCUBA training. Interpersonal and leadership skills are also highly valued, as astronauts need to be able to work cooperatively in challenging environments. As it turns out, becoming an astronaut is about 70 times more competitive than getting into Harvard. When Drew applied for the 2013 astronaut class, the applicant pool was about 6,000 and 8 were selected. In the past class (2017), the pool was more than 18,000 and only 14 were selected. For Drew's perspective on the selection process, listen to NASA's latest podcast: Soldier, Physician, Astronaut.
Once selected, the applicants are officially known as "astronaut candidates". They will hold this title during the 2 years of training that follows. Astronaut candidates are trained in geology, robotics, wilderness survival, water survival, aircraft and flight readiness, International Space Station systems, and Russian language proficiency. Only after successful completion of all these educational fields can the candidates graduate as "astronauts".
The International Space Station
Most Americans became familiar with the space program through either the Apollo missions of the '60s and '70s that allowed us to land on the moon or the Space Shuttle missions of the 1980s and '90s. The Space Shuttle was the first spacecraft that was designed to be reusable and its purpose was to assemble a lower earth orbit habitation, which became known as the International Space Station (ISS). The original purpose of the ISS was as a laboratory and observatory while providing a staging location for future missions to the moon and Mars. Over the years, however, it has also been used for diplomatic, commercial, and educational purposes.
The ISS is powered by double-sided solar arrays (blue in the model to the left) and is slightly larger than a football field. It has two main sections: The Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the United States Orbital Segment (USOS). The Russian Space Agency maintains the ROS and the United States shares maintenance responsibilities of the USOS with several other space agencies in Canada, Japan, and Europe.
Life on the ISS
There has been an uninterrupted human presence aboard the ISS since November 2000. The ISS supports an international crew of up to 6 people at a time, although missions overlap so that not all 6 crew members arrive and leave on the same schedule. While in the ISS, space suits are not needed and crew members can breathe normally. The solar panels provide electricity for electrolysis, which splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen gas is vented overboard while the oxygen gas is circulated through the ISS.
An astronaut's time on the ISS is primarily consumed by research and communication to Mission Control. Current experiments on the ISS include studies in genetics and human biology, growth of organisms, physical science and technology. The ISS also provides an amazing vantage point to observe changes on Earth including weather patterns, atmospheric changes, geological and even agricultural changes. Although many studies are ongoing, published research is available to the public on NASA's website. Each crew member has special skills based on their background and previous experience, but crew members are responsible for maintaining all experiments while on the ISS, regardless of their individual specialties.
Are you a science teacher interested in experiments conducted aboard the ISS? Check out this free student page from my TpT store: Epigenetics in Space, which summarizes data from NASA's recent Twins Study.
Drew was kind enough to give us a behind-the-scenes tour of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, including the training modules of the ISS used by the astronaut candidates. In the pictures below, you can see various segments of the USOS including the laboratory modules and padded sleeping quarters.
Some of the most anxiety-inducing activities for both astronauts and Mission Control are the Extravehicular Activities (EVAs), more commonly known as "spacewalks". Although EVAs were originally used by astronauts to explore the environment of space, they are now used to provide maintenance and repairs for the ISS. In order to thoroughly practice these activities before arriving on the ISS, astronauts train in a giant underwater laboratory called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL). The NBL consists of a 6 million gallon diving tank containing full-scale mock-ups of portions of the ISS as well as various other vehicles that dock at the ISS.
Astronauts don spacesuits to practice EVA repairs in microgravity under the water. Each astronaut must be lowered into the water by a crane and spends several hours practicing tasks that will need to be accomplished while on the ISS.
Transportation to the ISS
Currently, astronauts are only able to launch to the ISS from the Russian launching site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Supply rockets do launch from the United States, Russia, Japan, and Europe, but are not yet able to send humans. A few companies in the United States are completing test flights to prove their capabilities in sending humans to the ISS. NASA provides regular updates on the commercial test flights on their website.
The rocket currently in use is the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which is the most reliable launch vehicle in the world. It can carry three crew members and sustain them for 30 days, although it usually only takes a few hours from launch to docking with the ISS. A few hours would be more than enough for me, as you can see the size of the crew's capsule in this picture.
Drew's launch is scheduled for 12:28 EST on July 20, 2019. He may be one of the last American astronauts to launch from foreign soil. My husband and his family, Drew's family, and a few others will be watching his launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Drew will be on the ISS for Expeditions 60, 61, and 62, totaling nine months.
I will be holding down the fort stateside with our children and watching the live stream on NASA TV with family members and friends. As July 20 is the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, there are many events and celebrations happening around the country. NASA provides video coverage of all their launches and live access to video feed from the ISS. Due to the historic nature of this launch date, you will surely see media coverage of NASA events on that date. I hope that when you do, you'll join me in praying for the health and safety of Drew and all the astronauts aboard the ISS.
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