After nearly three and a half years the launch date is finally only a few weeks away. After so long it is hard to believe! Many ISS crew members come back from Space Station missions and proclaim that the training flow is much harder than the actual mission. Training is a grueling marathon lasting anywhere from 2-4 years in which you are away from home for a month and then home for a month and then gone again. You have no control over the fundamentals of your schedule, but can tweak it from time to time. There is the philosophy that you should train as you fly and in the case of Space Station training and the wear and tear on lives, we certainly train much harder than it is to fly!
But we are not alone through this process. There are a lot of people at NASA, not the least of which are the training managers and integrators, the people who control our schedules, and hence our lives, who put many grueling hours in either international meetings negotiating schedules or in internal meetings balancing the many requirements, with the intent of making our lives less chaotic. In addition the training community is very dedicated and makes the extra effort to ensure you get all the information that they think you need in order to be successful during your mission. There is a whole different group of people whose job is to make sure that while on orbit you can maintain contact with your family and friends. These people form the logistical and lifeline support for staying in touch and their hard work cannot go unappreciated! In the background are the myriads of people who work planning - what is to be done on the mission and when. It is their hard work that sets the framework under which we operate. I should correct myself in that not only are these people at NASA, but actually all over the world, in Europe, Russia, Japan, and Canada. There are truly a lot of people involved in preparing for an ISS mission and the crew training is only a small part of it!
As a crew member, however, the main arena you intersect with is the training and that has been my experience for the last few years. So what is training like? When I started back in July 2005 it was as a backup for Dan Tani who was destined to fly as part of Expedition 16. The training program has a cyclic flow to it. At the beginning there was a rush to get me trained up in the basics of both the Russian and U.S. systems and hence the travel schedule was very challenging. Once I became prime, after Dan’s launch, my schedule became more benign and I was able to stay home for multiple months at a time.
The travel was certainly grueling, but it was also interesting. I had the opportunity to go to Japan for the first time, and several times after that. I had never been in the East and really enjoyed the experience. I found the people to be some of the friendliest of anywhere I had been. I was able to spend lots of time in Russia and renew old friendships. We also trained in Germany, where I was able to practice my rusty German (which had practically been supplanted by Russian). Arm training in Canada was more or less an extension of the technical job I had before being assigned - working on the SPDM robot, so that was very comfortable as well. I got used to being on an airplane for 10 hours and certainly got a lot of reading done! It was both fun and painful to fly around the world in one trip, which required a two-week training session in Russia and then a two-week training session in Japan before being able to return to Houston. Fun because it was something I had not done before; painful because on orbit during STS-112 it only took 90 minutes to complete the whole trip, but via airplane it was three 10-hour or so plane rides. Thank goodness I like to read!!!!
Training, in every country, was a combination of classroom and practical lessons. Typically we would sit in lectures and learn the theory behind what we were supposed to do. Once we finished the classroom lessons we would typically proceed to hands-on training. This could take the form of either working on a computer, which had the flight software loaded on it, to working in a full-scale mock-up of the module we were learning. The type of practical training we got varied greatly on the task we were training. It was all an adventure! Some of the things we did were unique to the Space Program—things like sea survival, winter survival, centrifuge testing, Soyuz seat liner molding in Russia, to water survival, T-38 training, NEEMO and NOLS missions in Houston, all kept life very interesting indeed! On the other hand some of the training seems almost mundane by comparison. Regardless there is always something new to learn and some obscure fact to remember for some unknown future use.
Now it is the time to take the training and turn it into action. It feels a bit like studying for a final open book exam. You have all of the resources that you need and you have taken copious notes, but during the exam you do not really use your carefully prepared sheets because in the process of making them you have assimilated all of the information that you need. I look forward to my own nearly four-month-long open book exam and expect to learn a lot more and have fun while I am doing it!