Astronaut Survival Training: When Things Go Wrong on Earth
The most perilous moments in a spaceflight can happen after the landing.
One of the things that is rather unique about spaceflight training is the very heavy focus on dealing with off-nominal situations. In many ways, this is completely understandable; spaceflight is dangerous and there are countless things that could potentially go wrong, quickly leading to life-threatening situations. As such, we spend a lot of time learning how to cope with less-than-desirable circumstances.
As you would expect, a lot of this training revolves around the capsule itself. I have flown numerous simulated missions in which I had to deal with contingencies such as bad re-entry burns, parachute failures just prior to landing, and power failures.
For the curious, the craziest challenge ever thrown at me while in the capsule was something that happened after landing. Before I tell you what happened, though, I need to give you a little bit of background. Normally, when a space capsule lands in the water, it lands right-side-up in what is known as the Stable 1 position. However, when the capsule descends under parachute, it drifts with the wind. Depending on the wind speed (and the capsule's horizontal velocity) and the sea condition, the capsule can flip upside-down when it splashes down in the ocean. This is known as Stable 2 position. A Stable 2 landing is considered to be perfectly normal and is not cause for alarm. The capsule is equipped with a righting bag system that can roll the capsule right-side-up into a Stable 1 position. These righting bags are like big balloons at the top of the capsule.
At any rate, anytime I fly a simulation, it isn't going to go smoothly. The instructors always introduce problems to teach the flight crew how to cope with situations they might encounter if something were to go wrong.
I once flew a simulated descent in which The Powers That Be did not introduce a single problem. As the capsule descended toward the simulated ocean (which was actually a swimming pool), I couldn't help but wonder what was about to happen. The parachutes had been successfully deployed, so the simulated flight was more or less over. Even so, I knew I would never be let off the hook that easily; The Powers That Be had to introduce some sort of problem. I had no clue what they could even do to me at that point, but I knew that something unexpected was about to happen.
When the capsule landed, we went into Stable 2 position -- which, again, isn't a big deal. At that moment, however, the capsule experienced a complete power failure. So there we were, upside-down, under water, in the dark. (They didn't actually roll us into Stable 2 position for safety reasons -- we were only told that we were Stable 2 -- but we really were in the water in the dark.) The crew had to work together to figure out a way to restore power so that we could right ourselves.
That's what I mean when I say that spaceflight training is all about training for off-nominal conditions. One of the things that initially really surprised me about the training process is that this training for off-nominal circumstances extends well beyond the end of the mission. It's always possible that you will land somewhere unexpected, and that it may take the recovery crew some time to reach you. As such, I have had to endure both wilderness and sea survival training.
Sea survival involved learning a number of skills in a swimming pool, then putting those skills to the test in the North Atlantic in freezing temperatures. My first wilderness survival training course took place in Colorado (in a mountainous region), but when the world goes back to normal, I am supposed to do additional wilderness survival training in the Arizona desert.
In some ways, the wilderness survival training was the toughest thing I have ever had to do with the space program. It wasn't that the experience was more physically demanding than other exercises that I have done (it wasn't) or more technically complex. The thing that made the wilderness survival training so difficult was the psychological aspect.
There are two different space vehicles that I am training to fly on. One of those vehicles is designed to land on a runway, the other in the ocean. As such, if either of the vehicles were to land in the Colorado wilderness, it means that something has gone very wrong.
But the course did not focus solely on wilderness survival. There was also a major emphasis on wilderness medicine. The crew worked through numerous simulations in which we were required to treat various injuries sustained in the landing. These injuries ranged from chemical burns to broken bones, and worse. Often, the injuries were simulated very realistically; the doctors who were overseeing our training made extensive use of fake blood and did other things to make the situation as realistic as possible.
As the crew progressed through its skills training, we were sometimes left unsupervised. We were alone in the wilderness, injured to various degrees and forced to care for one another. This is what made the simulations so difficult.
It is impossible to go through something as intense as training for a space mission without building some really deep friendships with your fellow crew members. It is unbelievably difficult to see close friends covered in blood and suffering from horrific injuries, and knowing that you might not have the skills or resources needed to save them. Sure, it was just a simulation, but the simulations were realistic enough that at times I found myself forgetting it wasn't real.
At the end of it all, I walked away with a newfound appreciation for how dangerous spaceflight really is. I also realized for the first time just how big of a responsibility it is to take the medical and survival training seriously. If our spacecraft were to come down in mountainous wilderness, then all of us would likely be injured to at least some degree, and we would have to depend on one another to render medical care and ensure the crew's collective survival until help arrives.
Brien Posey is a 19-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.