Spaceflight Training in the Middle of a Pandemic
Surprisingly, the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown has hardly slowed down the space training process for Brien. In fact, it has accelerated it.
One question that I have been getting a lot lately, mostly from family and friends, is what kind of impact the worldwide lockdown has had on my spaceflight training.
I think most of the people who've asked me that are assuming that training has come to a grinding halt. The somewhat surprising answer, however, is that the training process has hardly slowed down at all. In many ways, it has actually accelerated.
As weird as that probably sounds, the answer has a lot to do with the way the training program works. If you watch any spaceflight-related movie, you are likely to see astronauts preparing for their mission by spending time in the centrifuge or by floating around weightless on a parabolic flight. While those types of things are, indeed, a big part of the experience, far more time is spent on academics than on hands-on training activities. I typically spend several weeks in the spring and several more weeks in the fall doing hands-on training exercises. The rest of the time is spent on academics.
Most people have probably never stopped to think about how much classroom time is required to prepare for a space mission, but it involves learning a lot of material. Some of that material is mission-specific. For example, I've spent quite a bit of time studying lunar geology. In addition to mission-specific academics, however, you also have to learn how all the flight hardware works. This means learning how to operate a spacesuit and learning how the life-support systems work (among many other things).
I have to confess that I wasn't exactly thrilled to discover how large a role academic studies play in commercial astronautics. I was one of those kids who absolutely hated school and couldn't wait for the day when it would finally be over. Even today, I can think of a lot of things I would rather be doing than writing term papers or solving mathematical calculations.
Somewhat ironically, however, the heavy emphasis on academics is the very thing that makes it possible for me to juggle my IT career with my spaceflight training.
Historically, NASA astronauts have been required to move to Houston, Texas (although they spend a lot of time traveling). In the past, most if not all of their training has taken place in person. Based on what I know about the training process, it would be nearly impossible for a NASA astronaut to continue with their previous career while also training to go to space.
In contrast, commercial space programs like mine tend to do things differently. Unlike NASA astronauts, I didn't have to pick up and move to another city when I was selected into the program. Nearly all of the academic training that I've done has been online. That's why I am able to continue to write my Tips & Tricks column while simultaneously training to go to space.
Admittedly, it keeps me really busy and I don't get a lot of free time, but that's OK. All of the hard work has definitely been worth the effort.
So, back to the original question of what spaceflight training has been like during the pandemic-related lockdown. I was originally scheduled to spend the bulk of April and May traveling. The plan was to do some additional landing, post-landing and capsule egress training in Connecticut, followed by some space medicine and lunar geology training in Arizona. That obviously didn't happen. I'm sure those exercises will be rescheduled at some point, but the schedule is a bit unpredictable at the moment.
Right now, I am continuing to focus on academics. I'm roughly about a month into a three-month course on orbital mechanics. At the end of that course, there will be a follow-up course in which I will learn how to operate the Orion capsule's flight control systems.
At some point, hopefully in the fall, I will be using everything I learned in those courses to fly a simulated mission onboard an Orion training capsule. I don't yet know what this simulated mission will involve, but it will likely either be a mission to the International Space Station or a flight around the moon (similar to Apollo 8).
In any case, the program is placing an increased emphasis on academics until the day when in-person training becomes possible once again.
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.