How are astronauts prepared for their mission aboard the International Space Station, and who trains them?
ESA’s new astronauts pose in the Columbus training module at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne after successfully completing their basic training. Top row: Timothy Peake, Andreas Mogensen, Alexander Gerst, Luca Parmitano. Bottom row: Samantha Cristoforetti, Thomas Pesquet. (© ESA)
At the end of 2010 six new European Astronauts graduated from the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne forming part of the European astronaut corps. Naturally the question arises of how astronauts are prepared for their mission aboard the ISS, and who trains them? We took a look behind the scenes of the European Astronaut Centre and met Airbus Defence and Space’s astronaut instructors on the ground.
Preparing to be space-bound
Before the astronauts commence their mission to the International Space Station (ISS), they have to undergo extensive training at the EAC. Like each of the International Partners, ESA is responsible for the basic training of its own astronauts and the training of all ISS crew members on its contributions to the ISS programme. All new ESA astronauts have to pass basic training, thereafter astronauts are given training for specific ISS missions. As there are two increments (crews on ISS) per year a total of 12 astronauts need to be trained yearly. Airbus Defence and Space is ESA’s prime contractor for the Columbus module, the European laboratory for conducting human physiology experiments and studying the behaviour of plants and other organisms in microgravity, and the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which supplies the ISS with vital cargo such as water, fuel and food. As industrial operator Airbus Defence and Space is also responsible for the maintenance of the station. This is laid down in the Industrial Operating Team (IOT) contract. So who could be better qualified than Airbus Defence and Space engineers to train the astronauts prior to their voyage to space?
Training on the ground
|A lesson has to be precisely timed and carefully planned out in advance. Then the lesson and the instructor are certified. In this photo, astronaut instructor Martina Pinni and Airbus Defence and Space intern Tahir Merali are conducting a dry-run of a Columbus maintenance lesson.|
At the end of 2010 six new European Astronauts graduated from the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne. How astronauts are prepared for their mission aboard the ISS, and who trains them? We take a look behind the scenes of the EAC and met Airbus Defence and Space’s astronaut instructors on the ground.
At the Astronaut Training Centre in Cologne there are a number of training models – most prominently Columbus, ESA payloads, ATV and Soyuz. The site also features a 10 metre deep swimming pool called the Neutral Buoyancy Facility (NBF) equipped with a Columbus model for EVA (extra-vehicular activity) training. All these models are as flight like as possible so that they resemble their ‘real’ counterparts in orbit. Alongside learning Russian, and general fitness and emergency training, the astronauts have to learn how the different components of the station work, how to maintain and repair them, how to conduct experiments in orbit and most importantly how to follow procedures and tasks from the ground stations. More than 20 astronaut instructors work at the EAC, 13 of which are Airbus Defence and Space and Airbus Defence and Space North America employees. Most are situated in Cologne, but two work in Bremen, two in Houston and one in Turin. The lesson preparation starts long before the astronauts arrive at the training facility. “The astronauts’ time is very valuable – often they only have one week in Cologne at the EAC before moving on for further training in either the US, Russia or Japan. Therefore the lesson has to be timed and carefully laid out in advance,” says Kirsten Bischoff, Team Coordinator of the Columbus System Training in Cologne.
Three levels of expertise
All astronauts, whether Russian, Japanese, American, Canadian or European, have to undergo mission specific training at the EAC, since they must all be able to work with the Columbus System, ESA Payloads and ATV during their stay aboard the ISS. However not every astronaut needs the same detailed training on the European components. The lessons are divided into three levels – user, operator and specialist level. All members of a crew must attain user level for Columbus and ATV, whereas only four are required to attain operator level and a minimum of two the specialist level for maintenance and repair. “We have to keep in mind that the main task of the crew is to perform scientific experiments and to maintain the station. During their six-month stay there are too many potential tasks to train them all,” says Peter Eichler, Airbus Defence and Space astronaut instructor. Therefore the training is skills-based rather than task-based.
|Crew training is essential for safety and effective ISS operations, and emergency training is part of the syllabus. In this picture Massimiliano Signori, one of the two operators of the Columbus simulator, is pressing the manual fire button to trigger the automatic fire response in the Columbus laboratory. The simulated fire event is used to train the required crew response to fight the fire. The astronauts have to be able to perform the first steps of their emergency response from memory.|
Astronaut instructors: the interface between engineers and astronauts
“As astronaut instructors we are the interface between the engineers, who design the modules of the International Space Station, and the astronauts who operate it,” says Kirsten Bischoff, Team Coordinator for Columbus Crew Training . “Astronaut training is a continuous process,” she adds, “and the great thing about our job is that we receive immediate feedback on the product from the end-user and can take this information to improve the training curriculum.”
|Kirsten Bischoff (left), Team Coordinator for Columbus Crew Training: “As astronaut instructors we are the interface between the engineers, who design the modules of the International Space Station, and the astronauts who operate it.” (© ESA)|
Some of the instructors are also part-time EUROCOMs – the only ones in the Columbus Control Centre in Munich who can talk directly to the astronauts aboard the station – and this is no coincidence. The astronaut instructors support the astronauts from the very beginning. During training a personal relationship is built which later facilitates the communication between the ground and the ISS. According to Peter Eichler: “It is easier to get through the training knowing that the same person will support you once you are in orbit and it is preferable to follow instructions from somebody you already know and trust.” Andreas Mogensen, one of the six new European Astronauts, expressed his gratitude and praised the good working relationship built between astronauts and trainers: “Without the help of the staff at the EAC we wouldn’t have got through our basic training.”
| © German Zoeschinger, DLR
Peter Eichler sums up his job in a nutshell: “My job is fascinating. I teach the astronauts everything they need to know about the European components of the ISS. I work together with bright and interesting people and I get an immediate sense of achievement, when I sit in front of the monitors in Oberpfaffenhofen in Germany, see the crew working in Columbus and can speak directly to them to help if they have a problem or a question. You just can't get any nearer to being in space yourself. The second best job in the world – after being an astronaut – is to be an astronaut instructor/EUROCOM.”
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