Nadine Lashier, Station Training Lead
To many people, NASA's astronauts are heroes. They're bold explorers, among America's best and brightest.
To Nadine Lashier, they're students.
"Eventually, you stop thinking of them as 'the astronauts,'" Lashier said. "You teach them what they need to know and correct their mistakes -- treat them just like anybody else."
Lashier is the International Space Station training lead for the STS-118 mission. Space shuttle crews spend a lot of time learning the shuttle systems in preparation for their flights. But they have to study the space station systems as well. Since almost all remaining shuttle flights will be dedicated to the construction of the station, the crews will need to be familiar with the areas involved in their assembly tasks. They'll also have to know where things are and how things work on the station to be ready for the time they'll spend there during the mission.
Training begins in a classroom, where Lashier's team provides her students with a general overview of the station and its systems. From there, the crew moves to hands-on work in space station simulators where they practice what they've learned.
Once the crew has mastered the basics, Lashier and her team make things more difficult. When the astronauts know what to do under normal circumstances, the trainers prepare the crew and Mission Control teams for things that might go wrong.
"It's our job to try to find the holes," Lashier said. "What could break that they haven't thought of yet?"
That contingency planning has been a vital part of preparations for STS-118, she said, because it will not be enough for the crew to be prepared for their primary mission objectives. They must also be trained for tasks from the preceding mission, in case something doesn't get finished, and tasks from future missions, in case the STS-118 crew has time to get ahead.
"From my perspective so far, it's been more of we're the 'unknown' flight," she said, "in that if something doesn't get done before us, we have to pick it up. And if they decide that something else after us needs to be done earlier, we have to pick it up. That's been one of the challenges to figuring out what the crew needs to be trained to do."
Lashier's team consists of experts in the various space station systems, such as life support and robotics. Team members generally work in a specific training area before joining the integrated station training team. "For all of the core systems, I have someone who is an expert in that area," she said. Lashier, for example, was an instructor for the Space Station Guidance, Navigation and Control system for six years, and also worked on the Space Station Russian Segment simulator. STS-118 is her first mission as a station training lead.
Station training for the STS-118 crew began in April 2006, meaning that the crew will have received more than a year of training by the time they launch. While that may sound like a long time, Lashier said it was an adjustment after her last job. Because the shuttle fleet was grounded, she worked with the STS-115 crew for about five years.
"We thought, 'We only have a year to do everything with these guys? Oh no!'" she said. "But we had to remind ourselves that this is the normal way of doing things."
Not all of her job involves working directly with astronauts. Lashier's team plans the crew's training and tests the simulators that the crew will use. STS-118 has involved more work preparing the simulators, she said, because her team is using a new version of software in the simulator for the first time. "That's always interesting," she said.
Working as a NASA trainer was never a career goal for Lashier, but rather involved a bit of serendipity.
"I was always interested in science," she said. "I knew by the time I went to college I wanted to do engineering. By the time I left college, I knew I was most interested in aerospace engineering. So I went to graduate school, to do aerospace engineering, and basically was trying to decide between space and flight testing."
While she knew she was interested in engineering, there was a catch. "I learned pretty early on I didn’t want to be this 'hard-core' engineer," she said, explaining that she did not think a purely technical job where she would be "crunching numbers all day" would be right for her.
Fortunately, a friend asked her to join her at a job fair. Lashier agreed, mostly to keep her friend company. While there, she learned about a job opening as a trainer for NASA. For Lashier, it was an ideal position -- combining engineering and human interaction. "So the whole idea of coming to training really appealed to me," she said. "And I knew I wanted to work at NASA."
Lashier has gained a lot of experience since then, and now is looking forward to what the future holds. "As we get the new program going -- the moon and Mars -- I would love to be involved in that," she said. "They're going to need training for all of that too."
In addition to crew training, planning and simulator preparation, Lashier's job includes another component. And while the astronauts may seem no different from other students in the classroom, they definitely do during this part. Once the training is complete, Lashier's team will follow the STS-118 crew's progress during the actual mission.
It can be quite rewarding, she said, to see an astronaut in space carrying out a task and be able to say, "Yep, I taught him to do that."
NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's future by emphasizing three major education goals -- attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines; strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce; and engaging Americans in NASA's mission. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on supporting formal and informal educators to engage and retain students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines needed to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.
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