I’m a NASA astronaut, and here’s what it takes to become a space voyager

Learning Russian and escaping from an underwater helicopter are all part of preparation for life on the International Space Station.
Learning Russian and escaping from an underwater helicopter are all part of preparation for life on the International Space Station.
Image: NASA
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I was teaching a third-period science class on April 12, 2004, when I got the phone call from NASA I’ll never forget. Soon I’d relocated to Houston, Texas, close to the Johnson Space Center, to begin training to become an astronaut.

As I would quickly discover, it’s a long and rewarding road. But most of an astronaut’s career is spent here on earth. As aspiring astronauts around the country brush up their resumes in response to the news that NASA is recruiting candidates for future deep-space missions, here’s what they should know about life on the ground.

Step one: Flight training

If you’re not already a test pilot, you’ll do flight training in Pensacola, Florida. First, you’ll complete a water survival course. This includes escaping from the helo dunker—which means you’ll be strapped into the body of a helicopter, plunged into a swimming pool, flipped over, and finally allowed to break free. You do this three times, the third time blindfolded.

Next, you’ll learn the basics of flight planning, aircraft systems, take-offs and landings, navigation and communication. You’ll test out your new skills in simulators and take several, real-life flights as both a front- and back-seater. This training is critical because back in Houston, you’ll be flying in a T-38 jet—which means you’ll need to keep your real-time critical thinking and teamwork skills sharp.

Step two: Survival training

After Pensacola, you’ll leave for survival training in Maine. This training familiarizes you with the gear you hope to never see—the seat kit (the survival kit with a mirror, fishing hooks, water packets, chocolate, etc.) and parachute. If you’re using this gear, it means that you’ve made a crash landing.

Working in small teams, you’ll camp out in tents and survive on Meal, Ready-to-eat—which may be anything from peanut butter tubes to pouches of meat and vegetables that you heat with a chemical reaction. Meanwhile, you problem-solve different plane crash scenarios. During our simulation, we ran through a scene in which our Navy Seal and Army officers were “injured.” We had to make stretchers, gather our gear and carry them back to a rendezvous point about a quarter-mile away.

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger with fellow astronauts, completing the initial phase of her NASA training.
Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger with fellow astronauts, completing the initial phase of her NASA training.
Image: AP Photo/Bill Kaczo

Step three: Systems and operations

Florida and Maine give astronauts time to come together as classmates. Then it’s time to return to Houston and learn about the systems and operations on the International Space Station (ISS).

While you learn about the ISS, you’ll also be flying in the T-38. In your first two years, you are expected to get in a minimum of 25 hours a quarter. Understanding the systems and checklists of the jet helps prepare astronauts to use space vehicles and spacesuits.

You’ll also pick up Russian language classes. We take Russian because Russia’s Soyuz vehicle is the only vehicle that takes crews to and from the ISS. Eventually, the US will have a commercial vehicle flying from our soil, but it’s important to know the language of one of our primary partners on the ISS.

In addition, you’ll undergo spacewalk training, which involves six hours of moving through water in a bulky suit, and learn to fly the robotic arm. That’s because the ISS has a large, robotic arm that captures visiting vehicles and moves hardware and cargo around the exterior. When your head hits the pillow each night, you have no doubt that you accomplished something during the day.

Step four: The waiting game

After the initial two years of training, you’re ready for assignment. But you usually have to wait several years to actually go into space. What do you do in the meantime?

You maintain all of the skills you just learned while doing a desk job. You may help plan space walks, review robotics maneuvers, provide input for cockpit design, live in Russia as the NASA liaison, or help a current crew deal with a problem like water leaking into spacesuits.

You’ll want to balance your desk job with the training mentioned above or analog missions. Analog missions require astronauts to work in small teams to complete mission tasks and science studies, usually lasting over ten days.

I commanded the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations 16 mission, which investigated how we might collect samples from an asteroid passing by close to earth. While we lived 65 feet underwater in Aquarius, an undersea research station off Key Largo, we conducted daily “spacewalks.” We zipped through the water with a jet pack and worked with small vehicles called submersibles that simulated space crafts. Often, I would be completely focused on a task and then look up and see a barracuda slowly swimming by. It was a bit surreal.

All told, you’ll spend a lot more time training, learning, simulating, problem-solving, supporting, advising and leading missions than you will actually spend in space. But that’s as it should be. Many airforce and aerospace organizations have adopted the Latin phrase, “Ad astra per aspera,” which means “to the stars through difficulties.” It’s a fitting motto for astronauts, too.