Chapter 2: 'Survival of the fittest …'
Whew, it’s over … two days of winter survival training in Russia! Whoa! The second night’s temperature was -27 degrees Celsius (yes, that’s below zero!). The approximate conversion is about -18 degrees Fahrenheit! The first night was a “balmy” -26 degrees C! The forecast was for temperatures in the -20’s C … guess they were right on (rats!). I realize that I am from Nebraska, but sheesh! Let’s acknowledge that for the last 21 or so years, I have been a resident of Houston! The only thing that goes below zero in Houston is our checking account!
Image at left: Clayton Anderson tries to stay warm while at survival training in Russia. Credit: NASA
Last week we had two preparatory days of training. “We” would be me, Jeff Williams and Alexander “Sasha” Lazutkin, our Soyuz (and survival exercise) commander. On the first day eight hours were spent in the classroom learning about the Soyuz emergency kit (наз, pronounced “naz”), how to build shelters, our clothing and basic winter survival. Then we were taken to a garage-like building on the Star City training territory of GCTC. In that practice exercise, we simply donned our space suits (called Sokol suits) that we would wear upon leaving the Space Station in a Soyuz capsule bound for Earth. We climbed into an actual flown capsule and, upon “landing,” we changed into our winter survival gear (in the capsule … about the size of a compact car, front seat only!) and finally exited through the hatch (or the car’s moon roof) simulating what we would experience in the “field,” which we entered on Thursday about 1 p.m. We wouldn’t leave until Saturday noon.
The “field” was a heavily wooded resort area only about 8 miles from Star City. As we exited the capsule we stood in a clearing where about 4 feet of snow had been trampled down a bit by a previous training exercise. Immediately, the work began. Sasha, a Mir space station veteran began organizing our gear, while Jeff began to construct our shelter. I headed off to search for building materials and firewood … we were going to need tons of it! We constructed a “lean-to” type shelter, enclosed on the sides and “ceiling” with pine boughs and parachute cloth. Our floor of snow was covered with more boughs and more parachute cloth in an attempt to insulate our bodies from the cold of the ground. Let me tell you, we didn’t have enough insulation!
Next on the list was fire. We needed two, a signal fire and a fire to warm us in the shelter. The signal fire must burn fast, hot and bright so that rescue forces can see us, and it’s not lit until a search team is nearly overhead. The shelter fire was more like a traditional campfire whose purposes are warmth and heating water and food. I felt much better when we had the shelter fire going!
As night approached and the temperature continued its downward spiral, I “sat” the first watch from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. While toasty warm by the fire, my biggest fear was that I would let it go out. Fortunately, my watch passed uneventfully and it was my turn to sleep. After about 30 minutes of feeling pretty warm my entire body then said “… it’s cold … !” and no more sleep was to be had. After tossing and turning and warming close to the fire all night, daylight finally arrived. It was at that time that I was able to eat for the first time since the previous day’s lunch. The food was very similar to Army C-rations (per Jeff; and he should know!) and consisted of freeze-dried “Tvorg (yogurt),” freeze-dried chocolate, a fig bar, cookies and two tea bags with sugar and lemon. I devoured every bite and never thought this stuff could taste so good! Unfortunately, that was my entire day’s rations! Live and learn.
Day two was pretty much a re-run of day one. Gather firewood, enhance the shelter (we added two more walls and a door), stay warm and try to get some sleep. I thought I did pretty well with all except getting the sleep! As we awoke for our final morning, the training team arrived to survey our work and throw one small “trick” at us. We were instructed to gather our gear and prepare to march to the rescue helicopter, some 250 meters away (too many trees for it to land near our shelter). Little known to Sasha and Jeff however, was the fact that I was to fall and feign a broken leg only 30 meters into our trek. It was a performance worthy of an Oscar! The only bad part was lying in the snow for about 45 minutes while they splinted my leg, built a stretcher, covered me with their coats and dragged me to the “chopper.” That’s when the exercise ended … not a moment too soon!
Throughout my short career as an astronaut, I have been challenged physically, mentally and psychologically. Each time I had levels of anxiety that I knew I needed to overcome … exactly as I know I must on a long-duration spaceflight. And at the end of each “episode” I was able to look back with a pride that was sometimes immeasurable. I feel that pride now….
пака (“paka” meaning bye)!