Student Features

The Real Survivors
05.20.04
Living for a week in the icy Canadian wilderness, or staying afloat on a raft in the Black Sea, sounds like the plot of a reality television program. These adventurers hoping to outlast nature are involved in a much more serious competition; they're astronaut candidates, and the outcome of this survival training can determine if they'll be chosen for an International Space Station (ISS) or Space Shuttle mission. The interesting part, though, is that staying afloat or surviving on beetles is not the primary objective. Just as the winners of the television survivor competitions proclaim, enduring the challenge provides enormous insights into their true characters.

Astronaut candidates floating on a raft
Image to right: Astronaut candidates go through survival training. Credit: NASA

Astronaut candidates go through a variety of training in their first year of preparations for traveling to space. A round of survival training comes before they start work in orbiter simulators. While it seems improbable that an astronaut would end up on a deserted island, the possibility does exist for a number of reasons.

Before they end up in space, astronauts carry out a significant portion of their training in aircraft on Earth. It's unlikely, but possible, that one of those training planes could crash in a remote area and leave the humans on board to fend for themselves for a while. Knowing how to take care of their basic needs would be invaluable.

Astronaut candidates on a winter survival skills mission
Image to left: These astronaut candidates endure their winter survival skills mission. Credit: NASA

When they do earn the privilege to work on the ISS, astronauts need to be prepared for the unexpected. The current emergency escape vehicle on ISS is a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and if it were to be deployed, Soyuz doesn't land on a runway the way the Space Shuttle does. Soyuz lands in a more Apollo-like manner, with a parachute-guided capsule. That capsule generally lands on the ground, but it could also land in the ocean. Those survival skills might come in handy in an unexpected situation like that.

What do the astronaut candidates do on these survival missions? Part of it depends on where the mission is located. The National Outdoor Leadership Seminar in Idaho may require different skills from the Russian Black Sea operation. The Cold Lake Canada winter survival skills mission would be entirely different from one set in temperate zones in the summer.

Basic survival skills include being able to construct a shelter for protection from the elements, building a fire, obtaining food and water to supplement the existing supplies, and dealing with first-aid emergencies. That's the physical side to survival training, but that's not the most important reason for undergoing this grueling experience.

Astronaut candidates going through survival training in the woods
Image to right: Survival training builds character. Credit: NASA

Survival training is a character-building exercise, says Michael Lopez-Allegria, who is an experienced astronaut and ISS crew operations manager at Johnson Space Center. Through the exercises, instructors hope to instill self-care and self-management skills, to develop teamwork skills, and to strengthen leadership abilities. "It's important for these people to know the extent of their capabilities under extreme conditions. They're going to have to be able to get along in an isolated environment for long stretches of time. The Space Station and the Space Shuttle might be a bit more comfortable than the wilderness, but in many respects the end result is the same: you're stuck with these other people, and your survival depends on everyone working together."

Lopez-Allegria says that sometimes it's the little things that make the biggest impressions. When he went through similar expedition training as an astronaut candidate, he found that the simple task of brushing his teeth became a big chore. Arranging for the facilities, finding water, and disposing of the trash all became crucial parts of the mission. "I was struck by the planning and forethought required for such a simple self-management task," he says. "That made a big impression - bigger, perhaps, than the larger jobs of staying afloat at sea or keeping warm in the snow."

Published by NASAexplores