Perspective on space flight training

Paul D. Ronney, University of Southern California


Click here to skip all the boring wordage below and see some pictures and movies about space flight training.


I was a backup crewmember for two Space Shuttle flights in 1997, STS-83 and STS-94, the Microgravity Science Laboratory missions (was supposed to be one mission, but wound up being 2 because the first one ended after 4 days due to a Shuttle fuel cell problem.)  The official NASA job title for my position was “Alternate Payload Specialist.”  I was a backup to both primary Payload Specialists, Roger Crouch and Greg Linteris; if either one had been unable to fly I would have flown in their place.  As the Alternate Payload Specialist I needed to be ready to fly, so I went through all of the same training as the primary crew, meaning I spent more than a year commuting between the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston (where the mission was controlled), the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida (where the Shuttle launches and lands), the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama (where the science aspects of the mission were controlled), the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland (where many of the experiments on the mission originated), along with various university laboratories of the Principal Investigators, to Pensacola, Florida, for water survival training at the naval base there, to an air force base in Texas for centrifuge (high-g) training, etc.


I got involved in this experience because I was the Principal Investigator of one the experiments on the mission, namely the Structure Of Flame Balls At Low Lewis-number (SOFBALL) experiment.  I had accidentally discovered flame balls in 1984 while doing experiments at the NASA Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center’s 2.2 second drop tower.  In 1991 the experiment was selected for space flight and assigned to the MSL mission.  In 1995 it was decided that since there were several other combustion experiments on the mission as well, a combustion Payload Specialist would be selected to fly on the mission.  To make a long story short I was selected as the backup to both Roger (a materials scientist) and Greg (the combustion scientist).  These two people would fly along with 5 NASA career astronauts, 2 Pilots and 3 Mission Specialists.  NASA doesn’t normally assign backups to their Pilots and Mission Specialist astronauts, but often there are backups for astronauts from “outside” like Roger and Greg.  By the way, while one gets a VERY thorough medical screening before being selected for space flight training, the standards for passing are not that high – one definitely does NOT have to be a superhuman athlete with x-ray vision to fly in space, and NASA’s medical board knows that.


By the way, there are 3 types of U.S. astronauts.  First, there are Pilots, who are (obviously) responsible for launch, landing and on-orbit operation of Space Shuttle.  Pilots are chosen by the NASA Astronaut selection board.  Typically 5 - 10 are selected every 2 years. Almost all of them are military pilots.  (All military applicants, even for non-pilot astronaut positions, must apply through their military branch).  I went through the interview/selection process (not to be a Pilot, but rather a Mission Specialist as discussed next; obviously I wasn’t selected) in 1989.  I would describe the process as being like a fraternity or sorority rush.  Yes your technical qualifications are important, but everyone who gets to the interview stage has the necessary qualifications, so they evaluation is based more on personality and ability to fit in with the astronaut corps than it is on showing you’re the smartest or fastest or strongest person there.  The second type of astronaut is the Mission Specialists.  They are responsible for payload operations - science experiments, spacewalks, etc., whatever the mission requires.  Like the Pilots, they live and work in Houston, and are present on every flight and are hosen by NASA Astronaut selection board.  Typically 10 - 20 are selected every 2 years.  Some are military personnel and some are civilians who apply directly to NASA (see for more on the application process.)  The third type of astronaut is the Payload Specialist, such as myself.  Payload specialists are career scientists or engineers selected by their employer or country for their expertise in conducting a specific experiment or commercial venture on a space shuttle mission because of need for a particular scientific / engineering / political expertise not available in regular astronaut corps.  They are chosen (in the case of our mission) by the scientists with experiments on flight, or (on other flights) by political will (e.g. John Glenn.)  Of course all such selections have to be approved by NASA.  Payload specialists are not present on most missions and it’s not clear if any will be chosen in the future.  I suppose to be complete one should mention a fourth category, namely the Educator Mission Specialist, but none of these few people have flown yet (except of course for Christa McAuliffe’s on the ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986.)


There are 2 types of space flight training.  One is “Orbiter” training related to launch & entry, using the orange suits, emergency procedures, living in space (eating, sleeping, medications, going to the bathroom, etc.), photography, videography, etc.  The other is “Payload” training.  Since our mission was mostly science experiments, the payload training consisted of learning about science background on the experiments, the experiment procedures and schedules, how to perform the experiments, what to look for while the experiments were running, how to fix them when they don’t work, etc.


If I had to use one word to describe the experience, I would use the word “STRAIGHTFORWARD.”  Space flight training is not like movie “The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13” any more.  After years of training astronauts, things run pretty smoothly and in my opinion almost anyone with reasonable physical and mental skills could fly in space successfully.  For me, by far the toughest part of the whole experience was all the travel – one day in Houston, two days in Huntsville, one day at the Cape, …  Normally I don’t mind traveling but it really got to me after a while!


On the other hand, the best parts of the space flight experience (for Roger, anyway, this is what he relayed to me) were

1.      Pushing the button and starting an experiment for the first time.  A group of people have spend years studying some scientific phenomenon, another group has spent years building an apparatus to conduct the experiment, the crew has spent a year training on how to do the experiment in space.  But still, until you push the button, you really don’t know what will happen.  (And in the case of my experiment, SOFBALL, boy were we surprised by what happened!)

2.      Looking out the window.  We had all seen lots of pictures of the earth from space, but, as Roger said, it’s like the first time you peer over the rim of the Grand Canyon or turn the corner into Yosemite Valley.  No matter how many pictures you’ve seen, it doesn’t prepare you for The Real Thing.


Some useful links include:

My home page

Astronaut hopefuls home page (a Yahoo discussion group and mailing list)

NASA astronauts home page

Pictures of earth taken from space by astronauts (some really cool pics!)