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The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Astronauts spacesuit. Photo Credit: NASA

The Majority of an Astronaut’s Life

In actuality, an astronaut will spend very little time in actual space. The majority of their careers are spent in training and providing support to other missions. Once selected, an astronaut endures at least two entire years of basic training. If they’re successful throughout these two years, they’ll graduate and be assigned a space mission or technical roles without the Astronaut Office in Houston. These roles can include anything from providing support to the astronauts in space or developing spacecraft in the future.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
NASA Space Shuttle astronaut training at Kennedy Space Center. Photo Credit: NaughtyNut/Shutterstock

For some perspective, Charles Camarda was an astronaut who joined NASA in 1974. He launched into space on the first shuttle mission after Columbia in 2003. His mission was a two-week-long stay in outer space, and it was approximately 5.8 million miles round-trip! For the dozens of types of training, he went through, that’s all the time he spent in space. In his own words, “Training, training, training: survival (water, land, winter, you name it), shuttle systems, space station systems, Russian segment systems, expedition, rendezvous and docking, extra-vehicular activity (spacewalk), robotic arm, etc.” So keep that in mind when you think of the glory of being an astronaut – in reality, you’re just signing up to be a student for life!

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Astronaut walking on an unexplored planet. Photo Credit: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Future Methods of Training

Being an astronaut is much different than it was back when the first Moon landing took place. There are more commercial means and developments of spaceflight, such as Virgin Atlantic and Xcor Aerospace. Companies like these are more interested in renting out their spacecraft for NASA astronauts to use and developing a shuttle with the latest technology. So many of us grow up with a sense of wonder about the universe we live in, so it’s only fitting that we can eventually all experience it – though it will cost a pretty penny! Commercial spaceflight is a step in the right direction, even if it is mostly about money.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Scientists adjusting anti-gravity bands on astronauts’ spacesuit for a low gravity test. Photo Credit: Frame Stock Footage/Shutterstock

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation was founded in 2006 and has been the leading voice for commercial spaceflight (as the name may tell you). Its main goal is to promote technological innovation in the aeronautical industry and develop new commercial spaceflight methods. SpaceX, a company owned and founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk, has already begun promoting and selling commercial flights to Earth and Lunar orbit! They tout a “highly customized flight path” where you can fly over your hometown, famous landmarks, and other meaningful places. If any of that sounds attractive to you, you’d better start saving up. Why? Because it’ll cost you anywhere from $50 million – $90 million to fly into space privately!

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Astronaut exploring a new planet. Photo Credit: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

The Evolution of Commercial Astronauts

The problem with commercial spaceflight is that it sets new standards that don’t exist in writing. It is evolving so quickly that the measures may not have even been developed yet! Flight participants don’t have a set system of choosing applicants, except for those who can afford it. That puts them at risk if medical screenings are improperly done, and there’s no consistent method of selection between agencies. Therefore, the process of taking on astronauts by NASA may be thrown out the window altogether. Since they’re not looking for the highest performing individuals, agencies may only have bare minimum medical standards for who can go on these flights.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Cargo Carrier Rocket Launch. Photo Credit: 3Dsculptor/Shutterstock

The very definition of “astronaut” varies across different agencies, and there are even other words used for someone with the same set of tasks. Astronaut means “star sailor,” while cosmonaut means “sailor of the cosmos.” In 2003, when China sent out their own men into space, the debate over its own words rippled through the industry. Would they use the outlandish “Chinanaut?” Of course not. They mostly stuck to yuhangyuan, meaning “space navigator,” though taikonaut, which merged the Chinese word for space (taikong) with the Greek word for sailor (naus), seems to be more prevalent.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Astronaut John W. Young, Apollo 16 commander on the moon. Photo Credit: NASA

Missions to the Moon and Mars

The focus of these commercial missions is also to put long-term spaceflight to the test. The majority of these missions aim to take ordinary people to the moon or possibly beyond Mars. The crew on these missions would likely have to be quite diverse in skills and are most likely to include engineers, scientists, doctors, geologists, pilots, and technicians. Such trips could also provide additional insight into the psychological aspect of space travel since the crew will be isolated most of the time. There have been multiple missions to the moon from several nations.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Man on Mars, a space astronaut suit standing on a red planet. Photo Credit: Binary Studio/Shutterstock

Of the moon landings, the “Luna 2” spacecraft from the Soviet Union was the first to reach the moon’s surface successfully on September 13, 1959, and other countries have followed: the United States, Japan, the European Space Agency, China, India, Luxembourg, and Israel. There are currently 49 spacecraft missions to explore Mars, with the first dating back to the 1960s! Also, there have been missions dedicated to the observations of Mars’ moons. There have been three unsuccessful missions and multiple proposals. The most recent launch, as we discussed, is the rover “Perseverance,” which launched on July 30, 2020. It is expected to land in February in the Jezero Crater.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Man and Machine. Photo Credit: NASA

Robots in Space Exploration

Historically, robots have been essential in space exploration because of the harsh, uninhabitable conditions beyond the Earth’s orbit. Nowadays, robots are used as personal assistants on space missions, helping with tasks that ordinary humans couldn’t do on their own. However, there have been suggestions that should further foster this relationship to create a more harmonious relationship between humans and robots. The proposition is that robots could be environment explorers to minimize the risk to human health. This idea is quite vital for long-range missions to hostile environments or just dealing with the ship’s maintenance during the long journey.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Humanoid space robots. Photo Credit: NASA

Before robots went to space, scientists sent trained animals like dogs or monkeys to complete essential tasks and carry out experiments. As our robotic capabilities have improved, these tasks have been relegated to robots instead of living animals, thankfully. The first robot sent to space was Sputnik 1, launched on October 4, 1957. Its main task was mainly to orbit the Earth. Dextre, the Canadian space robot arm, was most recently designed to install and replace small equipment on the Space Station. It is the most advanced space robot so far. The ground control team manages it from NASA and the Canadian Space Association.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The First Man in Space

Yuri Gagarin was the first man to ever go into space, so of course, he is worthy of mention on any list addressing astronaut training. He was born in Klushino in 1934 and drafted into the Soviet Air Force in 1955, where he was trained in the use of jet fighters. Just five years later, in 1960, he was one of twenty pilots selected to join the brand-new Soviet Space Program. The United States and the Soviet Union were just two of multiple countries in a space race. Yuri then qualified for further selection into the “Sochi Six,” the elite cosmonauts that would form the Vostok Program base in the Soviet Union.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in 1961. Photo Credit: NASA

Due to Yuri’s training, optimal physical size, and general personality, he was eventually chosen as the first human to be sent into space. They had already sent dogs into outer space – we’ll talk about Laika in a bit! On April 12, 1961, the Vostok 1 craft carried Yuri into outer space while he reportedly whistled a tune called “The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows.” Yuri came back to Earth and became quite the celebrity, rightly so! Unfortunately, cosmonaut Gagarin died during a routine training exercise in 1968 due to another pilot’s error, though the details were not released many years later.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Laika, the first living being in space. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The First Animal to Orbit the Earth

Laika’s story is not one with a happy ending. Nevertheless, you should know her story. Poor Laika spent her puppy years as a stray on the streets of Moscow. It made her an ideal candidate for the space mission because stray pups were considered “scrappy.” Laika especially stood out to the scientists due to her calm nature and small size. She wasn’t the first dog traveling sub-orbitally, nor was she the only dog trained for this mission. However, they did introduce this pooch as the primary dog for this launch. During training, she and the two other dogs, Mushka and Albina, were enclosed in progressively smaller cages to prepare them for the spacecraft’s small size. They trained Laika to eat a unique, nutritious gel. Training included machines that simulated the noise, acceleration and motion she would experience during the launch as well.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Laika, the first space dog. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

They built this craft, especially for Laika. The craft had an oxygen generator, a fan, and enough of the weird gel-goop to keep her alive. However, the supplies would last for seven days. Unfortunately, none of the scientists was under the impression that Laika would safely make it home. Specialists had not yet developed the technology to de-orbit. Thus, it was impossible to bring her back home. On October 31, 1957, they sent Laika into space, though there were immediate issues with the launch. Her heart rate jumped much higher than it had in simulations. Also, her respiration was almost four times faster. The spaceship itself had issues as well, which led to the temperature inside the craft. After about six hours, Laika was dead from overheating. On April 11, 2008, Russian officials unveiled a monument in Laika’s honor. She also appears on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
The famous Buzz Aldrin’s lunar footprint. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The First Steps on the Moon

Even people who aren’t the least bit familiar with space exploration know the names Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and have heard the phrase, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” They are most likely the most famous astronauts and possibly among the most famous men in the world! Neil Armstrong was the commander of the historic Apollo 11 mission and the first man to ever walk on the moon. Think about that – he’s the first person to ever walk on land that wasn’t Earth! Before Armstrong was the legendary astronaut we all know him to be, this astronaut graduated from Purdue University. He served on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics High-Speed Flight Station. Armstrong trained as a military member, a naval aviator, and a jet aircraft pilot. All of these were incredibly useful to his eventual career as an astronaut.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Buzz Aldrin standing in front of U.S. flag. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Though “Second Man on the moon” may not have as fancy a ring to it, it’s still a pretty darn prestigious title. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin was not only an astronaut; he also made a career as an engineer, an author, and an actor! Born to a military family, he knew he has destined for the military himself from a young age. As such, this astronaut turned down an MIT scholarship and enrolled in West Point instead – no biggie. He served in the US Air Force as a jet fighter pilot. Then, they promoted him to an aerial gunnery instructor, and then a flight commander. These all served him well as an astronaut as well. Do we see a theme yet? His first words on the moon were: “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.” Buzz was also the first man to hold a religious ceremony on the moon.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Valentina Tereshkova, pilot-cosmonaut, first female cosmonaut, Hero of the USSR. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The First Woman in Space

After achieving the historic milestone of the “first man in space,” with Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet Union also hoped to be the first country to put a woman in space as well. They selected Valentina Tereshkova among hundreds to go into outer space. On June 16, 1963, that’s exactly what she did. Her extensive experience in parachuting, her “working-class” background, and her connection to her father (who was a Russo-Finnish hero) led to her selection. Her mission was to orbit the Earth, and she did that 48 times over three days!

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly to space. Photo Credit: NASA

She kept a thorough flight log and took photographs, which proved very useful for atmospheric studies. After her return home, Valentina went on to be a cosmonaut engineer and became involved in politics. She married another cosmonaut (aww!), and they had a daughter together. Unfortunately, after her flight on the Vostok 6, they disbanded the women’s corps. It would be almost twenty years before another woman would go into space. Valentina was only 26 years old at the time of her space trip. We bet we’re all feeling a bit old now, right? They also named a Hero of the Soviet Union and awarded her the Order of Lenin twice.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Chimpanzee “Ham” in space suit. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The First Chimp in Space

So, we’ve had humans, and we’ve had doggos sent out to space. You know there have been other animals too, of course. NASA and others have sent all kinds of life forms sent out to space – toads and cats and plants, oh my! On January 31, 1961, Ham became the first chimp in space. His name is an acronym for the Holloman Aeromedical Laboratory (Holloman Aero Med). The original flight plan called for a 115-mile altitude flight with speeds ranging up to 4400 mph, though technical issues led to poor Ham experiencing 157 miles of altitude and going as fast as 5857 miles per hour.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Chimpanzee Ham with bio-sensors attached to his body is readied by handlers for his trip in the Mercury Redstone 2. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

These technical issues also meant he landed about 422 miles farther than planned, but thankfully there were no severe issues beyond a bruised nose, some fatigue, and slight dehydration. Ham experienced 6.5 minutes of weightlessness during his 16.5-minute flight. After all the excitement of being an astrochimp, he got to live out the rest of his life in the North Carolina Zoological Park until he died in 1983. Most of his remains are buried in front of the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico. However, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology has kept his skeleton for ongoing examination.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
STS-95 Payload Specialist Glenn wearing the orange partial-pressure launch and entry suit. Photo Credit: NASA

The Oldest Person in Space

Ok, so maybe you didn’t make it to space by the time you were 26. No big deal – it’s never too late. John Glenn is perfect proof of that! It wasn’t enough for Mr. Glenn to be the first American to orbit the Earth – no. He needed another big title under his belt. Maybe more. On October 29, 1998, nearly forty years after he became the oldest human to travel in space – and he was a senator while doing it! He was seventy-seven years old at the time. His age served a purpose in the mission; he was serving as part of a NASA study on health problems associated with aging. They wanted to see how aging was impacted in space. Who better to help you figure that out than a tried-and-true astronaut?

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., wearing a Mercury pressure suit. Photo Credit: NASA

After his world-renowned Earth orbit, NASA grounded John as a protective measure. They couldn’t risk this beloved astronaut’s life! John turned to politics, where he eventually won a seat in the Senate and won reelection three times. But it seems you can take the man out of the astronaut suit, but you can’t take the astronaut out of the man, because in 1998, John returned to space and retired from the Senate the following year – not before making a record of four consecutive terms in his state of Ohio. John Glenn died on December 8, 2016, at the age of 95.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Guion S. Bluford. Bluford, a member of Astronaut Class 8 and the United States Air Force. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The First African American in Space

Guion Bluford knew of his interest in space early on and earned an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. He trained as a fighter pilot in the US Air Force and went on to earn a doctorate in aerospace engineering with a minor in Laser Physics. In 1978, Bluford was one of 35 (out of 10,000 applicants) in NASA’s first competition to become a space shuttle astronaut! On August 30, 1983, he orbited the Earth on the Challenger and returned to Earth within a week. His next mission took him into the Spacelab with five other astronauts, where they performed over seventy experiments.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Guion Bluford, The First African American in Space. Photo Credit: NASA

He was the first African American and the second person of African descent to go into space, after Cuban cosmonaut Arnoldo Mendez. Before his first trip into space, Guion trained for a year at NASA. His various assignments included working on the Space Station, the Remote Manipulator System, the Spacelab systems, the Space Shuttle system, payload safety, and flight software within the avionics laboratory. He conducted experiments to understand the biophysics of space travel, fluid physics, life sciences, ultraviolet radiation, and navigation on space flights. All total, he has logged over 688 hours in space!

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The First Asian American in Space

Ellison Shoji Onizuka was the first Asian American and the first person of Japanese ancestry to reach space. He received an undergraduate and graduate degree in aerospace engineering in quick succession and then entered the US Air Force. There, he served as a flight test engineer and test pilot and attended the US Air Force Test Pilot School. He eventually became the squadron flight test engineer and became manager for engineering support. Within eight years of his entering the school, he was selected for the astronaut program and completed a year of evaluation and training by August 1979.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American in space. Photo Credit: NASA

In 1985, Ellison took his first space mission aboard the Discovery shuttle. Upon his return, they assigned him to the ill-fated Challenger. It launched on January 28, 1986. Sadly, a flame jet leaking from a solid rocket booster destroyed the hydrogen fuel tank. Just moments after the launch, the rocket exploded. The blast killed all seven crew members, Ellison among them. They buried him at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. NASA posthumously promoted him to colonel. He is survived by his two daughters, Janelle Onizuka-Gillilan and Darien Lei Shizue Onizuka-Morgan, and their families.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Kalpana Chawla, the First American Indian astronaut. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The First Indian-American in Space

Unfortunately, space travel is a dangerous endeavor, and many lives continue to be lost as we push on with our exploration. Kalpana Chawla, the first woman of Indian origin to go to space, was one of the seven crew members who died in the Columbia disaster when the spacecraft broke apart during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. They posthumously awarded Chawla the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. The country regards her as a national hero in her native country of India. NASA Ames Research Center named the Columbia supercomputer in honor of the crew lost in the disaster. They dedicated the first part of the system to Kalpana. She worked at the Ames Research Center before joining the Space Shuttle program.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Kalpana Chawla, STS-107 mission specialist, looks over a procedures checklist. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kalpana was born in India and was fascinated with planes and flying even as a child. She obtained an undergraduate degree in Aeronautical Engineering and then moved to the US to pursue a graduate degree in Aerospace Engineering. One degree wasn’t enough, though; she earned a second Master’s, then a Ph.D., also in Aerospace Engineering! In 1988, she started working at NASA Ames Research Center. By 1997, they selected her to be in her first space mission. She was the first Indian woman to go into space, and her first words there were, “You are just your intelligence.”

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
Astronaut John B. Herrington, mission specialist. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The First Native American in Space

John Bennett Herrington became the first Native American to fly into space in 2002. He earned a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics before receiving his US Navy commission in 1984. John is a member of the Chickasaw tribe. To honor his heritage, he carried the Chickasaw flag up to space during his 13-day trip. Before his voyage into space, John had quite the piloting experience. They designated him as a Naval Aviator, a Fleet Replacement Squadron Instructor Pilot, and a project test pilot for the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System. Herrington even earned an MS in aeronautical engineering. They soon assigned Herrington as a special projects officer to the Bureau of Naval Personnel Sea Deputy Component. There, they picked him for the astronaut program.

The Rigorous Training Astronauts Have to Go Through
John Bennett Herrington, the First Native American in space. Photo Credit: NASA

Once selected for the program in 1996, he reported to the Space Center, where he would complete two years of training and evaluation. They initially assigned Herrington to the Flight Support Branch of the Astronaut Office. On November 23, 2002, they launched him to the International Space Station from Kennedy Space Center. Herrington even got to perform three spacewalks during his 13-day stay. If you come across a 2019 Sacagawea dollar coin, you’ll see his spacewalk commemorated on one face of the coin! In September 2005, John resigned from NASA, though he indicated that he would continue doing public speaking engagements and work with the Chickasaw Nation.