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What it takes to be an astronaut

"Apollo 11", by CNN Films, explores the excitement of humanity's first landing on the moon through newly discovered and restored archival footage. Watch the premiere of this documentary on television on Sunday, June 23 at 9 pm ET / PT.

This was the first spatial docking of the story between two spacecraft, Gemini 8 and Agena, during NASA's second manned space flight program.

The astronauts were stuck in a loop, turning faster and faster. "We have serious problems here," Scott told Mission Control. "We are falling apart, we are disengaged from Agena."

Despite the wild rotation, which would be enough to cause a power outage, Armstrong was able to think quickly and use back-control system thrusters on the nose of the probe to regain control. The mission was abandoned, but Armstrong and Scott landed safely on Earth.

This is reminiscent of the terrible miss launch that astronaut Nick Hague experienced during what would have been his first trip into space. Two minutes after its launch in the Soyuz MS-10 capsule with Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchini, there was an anomaly with the rappel, and the climb was halted, resulting in a ballistic landing.

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"We were violently shaken from one side to the other and thrown back into our seats as the evacuation system from the launch pad separated us from the rocket," Hague said. "Like everything that's going on, you're upset, the vision is blurry, I hear the alarm ringing and I see the red light at the place where the the engine had an emergency. I had the strong conviction that we are not in orbit today. We have been removed from the rocket and we have to land. "

Upon their return, the two men are confronted with an assault of force G, or force of gravity, so strong that it sinks on the chest. They had to breathe using their abdomens to open their diaphragms. Astronauts also had to pick up loose objects so that they did not become projectiles during the landing. And they had to complete their landing checklist, talking with the control of the mission, while alarms were ringing around them.

On the recording of the flight, one can hear about Russian in The Hague, a language that he learned as an astronaut candidate. Both men seem extremely calm throughout the process.

An astronaut tells a failed launch ripping into space

"You realize that you are in a difficult situation, and what you can do to give yourself the best chance of success is to concentrate, stay calm and do the things you have been trained for," he said. stated later.

For Hague, you have to spend a lot of time training, going through all possible failure scenarios, including a scenario similar to what really happened. They were not prepared for the physical sensations of a landing on the ground, but Hague emerged from the capsule with a smile that surprised everyone.

Part of an astronaut's success is his training; part of its DNA.

It's the ability to adapt, react quickly, know when to lead and when to follow, communicate effectively, remember training and wait for the unexpected.

That's the good thing.

The first astronauts

At first, NASA did not know what qualifications an astronaut should be. He needed people who understood the risk, who could work under pressure and who could succeed in a dangerous environment filled with unknowns. There were fears that a man would look out the window of the capsule to see the Earth and panic or that it would be impossible to swallow in zero gravity.

The very first astronaut class of 1959 was devoted to the short-term Mercury program. In NASA's plan for manned spaceflight, security clearance was one of many issues raised. According to NASA historian Bill Barry, even though pilots were on the list of potential candidates for the astronaut program, people with adventure experience were also taken into account, such as divers , paratroopers and even circus performers.

"At the very beginning, all the crazy people in the world paraded in the hallway and presented ideas, some of which were really ridiculous," said Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a correspondent. CNN Medical. "Well, the air out there is very, very fine, it's empty." Oh, we should have a mountaineer, "and they said," Well, no, now, some of these divers are thrilled. and they do not want to come back to the surface, so we will have to do tests to make sure our guys really want to go back to Earth from space. And someone else said, "Wait, wait, it is dangerous, it is dangerous, we should find someone who is used to the dangers. bullfighter." "

It has been suggested to President Dwight Eisenhower to require that candidates graduate from an accredited test pilot school, which could cover all bases, Collins said.

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"So right now, which was huge, just a gigantic reservoir of hope was reduced to a few hundred, say, all over the country," he said.

Seven men were selected for Mercury, all test pilots. Their maximum height was 5 feet 10 inches because of the size of the capsule, said Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, historian at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Astronaut classes after Mercury would provide candidates for the Gemini and Apollo programs.

"The Right Stuff", Tom Wolfe's 1979 book and the 1983 film describe the first astronaut programs and test pilots who have moved from space to sky. But is that good?

"The selection process has been rigorous," said Ross-Nazzal. "They did not know what they were going to meet, so NASA imposed procedures on them to see what the human body could tolerate, and this part is probably pretty accurate."

But the description of test pilots with cowboy attitudes, which makes it a good story, is not the case.

The description of the test drivers by Wolfe as mavericks, impulsive and fearless is inaccurate, said Ross-Nazzal, who spent time with the test pilots. "The book-based film, while entertaining, really puts a spotlight on these stereotypes."

In fact, classes were constantly in motion, visiting NASA centers, performing technical tasks such as monitoring different aspects of the Gemini and Apollo missions that they were not flying, and piloting their T-38s to subcontracting facilities. But they spent most of their time simulating the mission to which they had been assigned.

We spent hours in classrooms learning propulsion, equipment and operations.

For Apollo missions, astronauts spent time in command and moon module simulators, practicing rendezvous, docking, ascending and descending, and arguing with mission control. The simulation supervisors wrote scripts while they were in the module, asking the astronauts to ensure that they – and the flight controllers – understood how their equipment and procedures worked, Ross-Nazzal said. .

The simulations were exhausting, but the astronauts will later say that once their mission is put into orbit, training would allow them to better appreciate the smooth running of the flight.

The lunar module was dangerous but necessary to navigate a lunar landing.

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On May 6, 1968, Armstrong completed his 22nd flight of No. 1 Lunar Landing Research Vehicle at Ellington Air Force Base. Five minutes later, he lost control of the vehicle due to loss of helium pressure and was ejected 200 feet above the ground as the vehicle crashed and burned under the impact.

Later, he will say that the Eagle, the famous vehicle that lands on the moon, behaved like the training vehicle Lunar Landing, which he flew more than 30 times before Apollo 11.

"Of course, that gave me a lot of confidence, a comfortable familiarity," Armstrong said at the time. "It was an opposite machine and a risky but very useful machine."

Astronauts who were preparing to land on the moon also made geology field trips to Hawaii, did field work, and described their environment to geologists. The experiments to be installed on the Moon included in-depth analyzes of the ground to discover what was possible with heavy space suits.

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The first astronauts were so immersed in the training and preparation of their missions that some of them were not quite aware of what was going on out there. Astronaut Alan Bean was so focused on his preparation for Apollo 12 that he had to keep abreast of the events of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War a few years later.

Later, the test pilot requirement would disappear and Harrison Schmitt, an American geologist, was trained as an astronaut and landed on the moon during the program's last mission, Apollo 17 .

The first astronaut promotion for the shuttle program in 1978 included more women and minorities as the needs of the astronaut program expanded to include more diverse skills. The missions of the shuttle would be longer and could carry up to seven people. So they should work together as a team, Barry said.

The constraints of space

Today, astronauts must prepare for long-term missions aboard the International Space Station. The usual mission time is six months, but more and more longer missions are helping to study the effects of long-term space flight on the human body. This will help prepare for the next wave of space exploration: the return to the moon and eventually a mission to Mars.

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After more than 50 years of manned spaceflight, researchers know some of the risks it poses to the human body. Astronauts face a stressful environment, noise, isolation, disturbed circadian rhythm, exposure to radiation, and head-directed fluid displacement when they occur. float rather than stand on solid ground.

Motion sickness in space occurs within the first 48 hours, resulting in loss of appetite, dizziness and vomiting.

Over time, astronauts staying six months or more aboard the station may experience a weakening and loss of bone and muscle mass. atrophy. They can also develop a loss of blood volume, a weakened immune system and cardiovascular deconditioning because floating requires little effort and the heart does not have to work as hard to pump blood. Those in their late forties and fifties also complained that their vision was slightly altered. Some needed glasses in flight.

According to the results of the NASA Twins study, spending 340 days aboard the International Space Station between 2015 and 2016 has resulted in changes in the body of astronaut Scott Kelly, ranging from his weight to his genes. Kelly and his identical twin brother, Mark, were both astronauts, but a unique opportunity was presented when Scott planned to spend a year on the space station while his brother stayed on Earth.
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The majority of changes in Kelly's body, compared to Mark's on Earth, returned to normal once he returned from the space station. One year in space caused the thickening of Scott's carotid artery, damage to the DNA, changes in gene expression, retinal thickening , changes in intestinal microbes, reduced cognitive abilities, and a change in chromosome structure called telomeres. But it has not altered or permanently mutated its DNA.

NASA is now focusing on the main threats to human beings traveling in space: isolation and containment, radiation, distance from the Earth, hostile or closed environments, and fluctuating gravity.

The added stress of a Mars mission includes years rather than months spent in space and an exacerbated feeling of isolation due to the delay in communication. The crew will have to be more autonomous. NASA psychologists have put in place corrective measures against the confined nature of the space station by increasing the number of communications with family members and strengthening links with culture, movies, music and news. They also send parcels to crew members, which helps to boost morale.

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Although the station's astronauts need to feel safe in their training and ready to be solicited for any task, whether to bandage one of their teammates or repair a broken down machine, they can not not to do everything alone. It is there that the non-technical requirements of a good astronaut candidate come into play.

"We need technical capabilities, we need to be able to drive a vehicle, we need to be a flight attendant, we need other types of technical applications," said James Picano, operational psychologist. senior at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

"But among all these people, we need the ability to listen well, to form a coherent crew, to work cooperatively and to live well with each other." We are not talking about finding They do not do it, we are talking about finding people who are psychologically competent, trained to work well with each other and manage relationships. "

An essential trait is resilience, or tolerating high levels of stress without degrading performance or health, Picano said. Armstrong and Hague are just two of the many people who have been resilient to errors or anomalies.

And in the heart of every astronaut, there is probably a lifetime explorer who wants to be part of this quest to go beyond our own planet.

"They are motivated by this idea of ​​challenge and this idea of ​​adventure," Picano said. "I think that a sense of contribution, a sense of giving greater good to this explorer spirit is a great way to motivate people to take action that many people would not do."

Choose someone with the right things

The astronaut candidate selection committee is looking for characteristics and skills that are appropriate for the stress of space flights. Once selected candidates, an impressive training program educates them on all aspects of what they might need to do during a long-term space mission and tests them relentlessly on each potential scenario in terms of failure and success.

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When astronaut Megan McArthur applied in 1999, 17 candidates were chosen from 3,000 candidates. A record 18,300 people asked to be astronauts in 2017, and 12 were chosen. McArthur is now on the selection board, along with other current astronauts, flight directors and the director of flight operations.

The jury has put in place a selection process to reduce the large number of candidates to about 100 candidates they invite to the Johnson Space Center. They want to get to know them in person through interviews, conversations and performance projections. To practice extravehicular activities of several hours, called EVA, astronaut candidates exercise in a pool the size of a football field measuring 40 feet deep with a model of the space station, changing the Equipment and choreography they need in the absence of gravity. .

At other times, as in The Hague, they spend hours in a simulator that looks like their spaceship and practice the management of malfunctions after a malfunction.

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The board seeks to see how they behave in team environments and by themselves. It is essential to know when to lead and when to follow, and when to make the change. Are they fit for training and able to acquire new skills? Do they have what it takes to accomplish, evaluate their own needs and those of others?

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Once the selected candidates become astronaut candidates, they undergo intensive training: basic training in spacecraft systems, what could an exit in space look like, how to work with robotics and deal with missions. McArthur was a graduate engineer who had no experience in aviation, but her NASA program built her, she said, breaking down any system by system.

"That's what the training is all about: helping you through those situations where you can not think, but react and know you're doing what's right then," McArthur said. "It gives you discipline, you have to learn these systems because your life will depend on them."

And while the selection process has evolved to include different selections, the basics of what they are looking for do not change.

"The skills and characteristics of an explorer will not change at all," said McArthur.

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