Astronaut Survival Training: A Crash Course in Sea Survival
Lots of things can go wrong during a commercial spaceflight -- especially once your capsule leaves space. An unplanned ocean landing is just one of those worst-case scenarios.
From time to time, I get asked whether the reality of training to go to space measures up to my preconceived expectations. The answer is yes and no.
When I first applied to become a commercial astronaut, I envisioned spending my days doing centrifuge training, zero-gravity flights and learning how to operate complex systems. While I have gotten to do all of that and much more, there were a lot of things that I never expected to be doing. For example, I never thought about the need for survival training.
Although survival training seems far outside the scope of preparing for a space mission, there is actually a really good reason for it. Spaceflight is dangerous. Things can -- and sometimes do -- go wrong. There are any number of circumstances that could cause you to land in an unintended location. I'm not just talking about landing a few miles from where you intended; your landing could be off-target by thousands of miles and, depending on where you land, it may take a long time for help to arrive. During that time, the crew is on its own and will need to have the necessary skills to survive.
As such, we're taught both wilderness and ocean survival.
What To Do in an Unplanned Water Landing
To date, however, far more emphasis has been placed on ocean survival. I am assuming that this is because three-quarters of the Earth's surface is covered by water.
If your capsule lands in the ocean, then it is best to stay in the capsule if at all possible. After all, you are a lot safer inside a sealed capsule than in the open ocean. I have been told that you can expect to be seasick and that, depending on the sea state (the wave height), you might also get tossed around a lot, but you are still safer in the capsule than out in the ocean.
The problem with this is that the life-support batteries only last for a couple of hours after landing. Once the batteries die, you may have no choice but to leave the safety of the capsule.
I have spent a lot of time practicing various capsule-egress techniques. Most of these simulations ended with me going for a swim in my spacesuit, but that's another story for another column. The important thing to note is that I had to go through ocean-survival training before I ever got to try my hand at egressing a space capsule in the water.
Initially, sea-survival training involves spending several days in a swimming pool learning basic skills. For instance, my crew-mates and I had to learn how to form a human chain that allows us to swim together as a group (to avoid being separated). We also learned how to climb into a life raft, which is far more difficult than you might think, especially when you are wearing a spacesuit. Additionally, we spent a lot of time learning techniques for dealing with hypothermia.
Once my group had honed our skills in the pool, we were taken into the Atlantic ocean where we had to put our sea-survival skills to good use. I have to admit that I wasn't thrilled about the idea of taking a dip in the ocean. Don't get me wrong; I grew up swimming in the ocean and it's something that I enjoy immensely. However, I have always hated the cold and our sea-survival training took place in the winter. (Technically, it may have been very early spring, but the air and the water temperature were both around 30 degrees Fahrenheit.)
They didn't make us wear spacesuits in the ocean. Instead, we wore survival suits. From a distance, the survival suits look a bit like spacesuits, and they float in a way that is somewhat similar to a spacesuit. Even so, the survival suits are warmer and easier to swim in. Wearing a spacesuit in the ocean can be dangerous for a number of reasons, so using the survival suits was a far safer option.
When the time came for us to get into the water, my crew-mates all jumped off of the boat. Since my face was exposed to the elements, I opted for a more controlled entry into the water to reduce the chances of getting any freezing-cold water in my suit. Surprisingly, though, the survival suit kept me warm and dry aside from my face and hands.
Once all four of us were in the water, we linked together so that we would not drift apart. The boat moved some distance away and then dropped an uninflated life raft into the water, before moving even farther away from us. We got into the chain formation that we had learned in the pool and swam as a group toward the raft. In the pool, swimming in chain formation had been easy. In the ocean, though, the waves made it difficult to stay connected.
Somehow, we managed to avoid breaking the chain and eventually reached the life raft. Someone deployed the raft's inflator line and we were all able to attach ourselves to the line while we waited for the raft to inflate. Initially the raft inflated upside down, but we had learned in the pool how to deal with a capsized raft. We flipped the raft right side up, and soon we were all on board.
'The Rule of Threes'
The thing that I find interesting about sea survival is that as difficult as the swimming and boarding might have been, that is only the very beginning of the ordeal. The next step is to take measures to ensure your long-term survival at sea. In a real-life situation, you have no idea how long you will be at sea. Even during my training, the instructors did not give us any indication of how long they would make us stay in the raft. I didn't know if they would leave us out there for 10 minutes or overnight.
Being in a raft adrift on the ocean isn't the most comfortable thing in the world. There isn't a lot of room in the raft, so it's hard to change positions when your foot goes to sleep. You are also out in the elements, with no idea when you will be "rescued."
The key to long-term survival in a situation like this is to prevent boredom. When you are bored, it's way too easy to fall into the trap of thinking about how miserable you are.
One of the concepts that's taught in survival school is something called the "rule of threes." It states that you can survive for three weeks without food, three days without water, three hours without shelter, three minutes without oxygen and three seconds without hope. Obviously, there is a bit of hyperbole incorporated into this rule, but the important takeaway is that when you start focusing on how miserable you are (giving up hope), your chances of survival go way down. Maintaining the crew's morale is of the utmost importance.
That being the case, the crew commander's first order of business once onboard the raft was to give everyone a job to do. The idea is that if you are actively working on something to help ensure your survival, then you are less likely to be thinking bad thoughts. The crew commander checks in with the other crew members every 20 minutes. During that check-in, the commander is looking for a progress report and a general statement of health (in case there are issues such as hypothermia that need to be dealt with).
As an example, one person was tasked with inflating the raft's insulating layer. Another person's job was to start removing the water that we had gotten into the raft during the boarding process. My job was to inventory our supplies. When the commander checked on our progress after 20 minutes, I gave him the inventory. Then I was instructed to spend the next 20 minutes counting the items again. I knew that my count was correct, and he knew it too, but that didn't matter. The point was to stay busy.
Thankfully, the instructors did not make us spend the night at sea. We were well-equipped to do so, but nobody wanted to spend the night in a cramped life raft. Even though we only spent a few hours at sea, it gave me a much better understanding of the consequences of an off-target landing.
Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.