The astronaut trade

The astronaut trade

How do you get to astronaut? What requirements do you have to have to be chosen as the protagonist of an orbital or even planetary mission? It was difficult to answer these questions when NASA, in the now distant 1959, invited the American army to provide the first astronaut candidates. Experience was lacking, precedents were missing: the only astronauts were those described in the science fiction books or in the flash strips Gordon and Buck Rogers.

In the difficult search for the right men to be the first to go to space, NASA kept in mind some essential characteristics to guarantee their space aptitude: a technical degree, a long experience as a pilot of military aircraft and a not very tall stature that allowed to enter the small cabin of the Mercury capsule. More than 500 men were qualified, who underwent technical and psychological tests by a specialized medical staff. Finally, many candidates were eliminated and others decided not to continue.

Those who survived were seven: M. Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Virgil Grissom, Donald Slayton, John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard. Each of them flew in a Mercury capsule, with the exception of Slayton who remained on the ground because his heart conditions were not satisfactory. However, Slayton rejoined in 1975, participating in the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Naturally, this first batch of astronauts followed others that NASA has selected in the following years for the Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle programs. Substantially, the requirements demanded of the first astronauts have not changed until today, although the Space Shuttle in particular has lowered the age to thirty-five years. It is not essential to belong to the army, the height should not be strictly low and, novelty, women have been part of the selection of candidates for orbital missions.

However, the training program remains as hard and exhausting as in the early stages. Substantially, when you are chosen to be an astronaut, it is like returning to the school benches: despite the degree already acquired, candidates must study math, meteorology, astronomy, physics again, become familiar with computers and study space navigation.

However, physical training represents the toughest obstacle. To accustom astronauts first of all to the absence of gravity that they will find in space, they begin to train them on board an airplane, a properly modified C-135 inside, where the absence of gravity is artificially recreated for periods longer than half a minute During times of zero gravity, astronauts must practice various types of activity, manipulate devices, eat and drink. And it is not easy to train to eat and drink in the absence of gravity.

In John Glenn's time it was obvious with a tube similar to that of toothpaste, in which food was contained precisely in paste. Instead, on board the Shuttle, space technology allows the miracle of a true rehydrated freeze-dried meal at the time of consumption.

The training of astronauts is obviously much more complex than described so far: for longer exercises in simulated weightless conditions, a special pool is used, where astronauts can train even with the space shuttle model. The daily manipulations in flight simulators and specialization courses with computers are not lacking afterwards. And it is that computing has taken an important role, as in many other aspects of our lives.

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