What Really Happens Before Astronauts Go Into Space?

VOICE OVER: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
For many, it's the dream job. An astronaut takes off from Earth, travels into space, and goes about their daily business on the International Space Station, or on the moon, or perhaps even further afield (in the future). But what does it really take to be an astronaut? How much training is involved? And how long does it take? Getting hand-picked by NASA definitely isn't easy, but it can be done!

What Really Happens Before Astronauts Go into Space?

Few professions seem as gruelling, stressful, exhilarating or awesome as being an astronaut. Getting to be at the forefront of technological development, at the pinnacle of human endeavour, paving the way for us all to explore the wonders of outer space and the universe is a pretty sizeable privilege, after all.

However, there are reasons why not just anybody can stick on the suit and be an astronaut, namely that it’s an almost impossibly difficult job to do. Out of the billions of people on the planet, only around 560 have ever been professionally trained to go into space. So, what kind of person do you really have to be to take one small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind?

In the various space programs around the world, the selection and training processes are different, but they rarely stray too far from the tried-and-tested methods set out by NASA over their long tenure of space travel. While the “Original Seven” astronauts, the first ever people trained to go into space, were exceptional military personnel who fit a list of highly specific criteria, today the selectors seem much more liberal with who they choose. As long as you’re highly qualified and have a background in STEM – that’s ‘Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics’ – you could be well on your way to the great beyond.

The traditional military route is a very viable option, though. Broadly speaking, out of the Forces you’re required to have a minimum of 1,000 hours flying as a jet fighter pilot-in-command. Academically, you should have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and then at least three years of work experience in your specific field. Lastly, anyone even hoping to jet off outta the atmosphere needs to pass an initial astronaut physical.

And all of this before even being considered for NASA’s prestigious Astronaut Candidate training program, which also requires you to pass through multiple rounds of interviews before finally getting enrolled. And only then does the hard work really begin, with all selected candidates undergoing a two-year training program.

Exactly what those two years entail isn’t quite as closely-guarded a secret as you might expect, though. Since candidates already have an in-depth knowledge of their specific field, the academic aspects of their training are largely focussed on honing their existing skills ready for life in space. That said, there are various additional classes in even more advanced sciences, plus a heightened emphasis on medical training and first aid, and there are survival training courses – which promise to push almost anyone outside of their comfort zone.

The physical side is infamously regarded as arguably the hardest part, however. Extending far beyond the first fitness test during application, NASA astronauts are required to be scuba-qualified and to pass a strenuous swimming test within their first month. From there it’s a long and continuous quest to build cardiovascular fitness (on the bike and treadmill) as well as specific strength training to not only enable them to carry out difficult tasks in cramped conditions, but to also prepare their bodies for the potential problems it might face; including a loss of bone density and muscle wastage.

Away from the gym, perhaps one of the most publicised parts of astronaut training takes place in zero gravity planes, which are purposefully put into freefall to simulate microgravity. NASA’s planes have picked up a few nicknames through the years, like the “Weightless Wonder” or, more aptly, the “Vomit Comet”. Their main goal is to familiarise potential astronauts with the feeling of low gravity, although it’s still said that nothing can adequately prepare you for what the endless floating actually feels like.

Time inside vehicles like the ‘Vomit Comet’ is especially important when it comes to “extravehicular activities”, or “EVAs”, which are those most momentous of astronaut tasks: spacewalks. EVAs are often listed amongst the most difficult (and potentially perilous) parts of space travel, because they’re extremely tricky to authentically prepare for. But, zero-gravity flights offer at least some insight into what the environment of space might feel like. Additionally, there’s NASA’s “Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory”, for further simulations. This is essentially an enormous swimming pool, but it isn’t the place to start doing lengths. Trainees don modified spacesuits to work underwater with accurate replicas of mission-specific spacecraft and equipment, tasked with achieving intricate repairs and everyday duties within a far from everyday environment.

In the search for anything that even closely resembles space, there’s also time for a field trip or two – often to remote cave systems. Thanks to their unfamiliar terrains, plus the generally dangerous and isolated locations that cavers encounter, the experience provides a perfect opportunity for teamwork and teambuilding drills, as well as the chance to properly study a new, never-before-seen place… All of which could come in handy for any future expeditions to Mars.

And the zero-gravity work doesn’t stop there. There’s also all sorts of complicated machinery and facilities to master, including (but not limited to): robotic arms used to move large objects; the Precision Air-Bearing Floor, which NASA compares to a gigantic air hockey table designed to teach astronauts about how large objects move in zero gravity; and the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility, which is generally full of replica versions of all the equipment astronauts use. In Russia they actually have a to-scale replica of the International Space Station to work inside.

In fact, away from NASA, training for the world’s other space programs can sometimes be even more taxing than in the US. The Chinese basic training takes around a year to complete, but there follows three years learning to pilot various crafts, and finally a 10-month period where the would-be astronauts utilise their own Neutral Buoyancy Lab. China reportedly puts much more focus on conditioning trainees in human centrifuge machines – to prepare them for sustained, high g-force flight. In general though, while the space programs of America, Europe, Russia, Japan, China, and elsewhere all vary slightly, there aren’t many fundamental differences. After all, many astronauts meet and work with each other on the International Space Station, so they need to be on the same page.

The global emphasis on teamwork and co-operation actually forms the basis for perhaps some of the more underappreciated skills an astronaut needs. Being a people-person and a good public speaker is surprisingly important because anyone who has ever been in space often has to give public addresses, as well as TV and press interviews about their experience. An astronaut has to be prepared for the slight celebrity status that the role brings with it. Similarly, being at least bilingual is a must – especially if you’re stationed on the ISS. Any Space Station astronaut (be they from America, Russia or elsewhere) needs to speak English and Russian so that they can communicate with both NASA and Roscosmos mission control.

Throughout an astronauts training, the emphasis on the ‘team’ can really never be overstated. All candidates are chosen with this in mind, and if they prove that they’re not a team player, it doesn’t matter how brilliant they otherwise are, they won’t make it through the selection process. The best of the best are psychologically evaluated week-to-week, day-to-day, all to determine how effectively they can operate in cramped, claustrophobic and often isolated living conditions. And, as governments and companies move their sights away from the low-orbiting ISS and towards Mars, this will become even more crucial. With the time-lapse in communications between mission control and the red planet, astronauts will need to rely even more on each other and their own initiative to get their work done, and to live their lives safely. A prospective Mars mission could also require upwards of a 30-month minimum trip, more than double the longest time spent in space yet, so the crew has to click.

So, what really happens before astronauts go into space? Well, a lot! But once the extensive training is over, once the unforgiving physical tests are passed, and once you’re a whizz on all types of space-based machinery, the rewards are huge. Astronauts are often listed as some of the happiest, healthiest, smartest, and friendliest people around. They’re physically fit, highly qualified geniuses in their field who have trained specifically to be calm, collected and sociable types. And – let’s not forget – they’ve actually been to space! They actually know what it’s like to look at Earth from afar, to feel genuine weightlessness, and to lift off from terra firma and shoot out into the stars. It’s gotta be worth it, right?