Astronauts: do you have what it takes?

Published 14.03.2011 ‘Features’ Engineering & Technology Magazine

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has just concluded a national recruitment campaign to bolster its astronaut corps, for which two were selected from a field of 5,000 applicants.

A’gruelling 18-month elimination process tested just about every imaginable aspect of the candidates’ physical, mental and spatial orientation abilities. New simulators and tests were engineered specifically for this recruitment campaign, taking into consideration Canada’s latest addition to the International Space Station (ISS): Dextre, a hand-like attachment for the famous Canadarm-2.

‘We were looking for a bit of ‘McGyverism’ in our candidates,’ says Stephane Carbine, referring to an American TV character known for his ability to improvise complex devices. Carbine, the campaign manager for the astronaut selection programme told E&T: ‘Our chosen astronauts have to be able to think on their feet and perform in highly stressed environments, despite the fatigue, despite the unknowns.’

Three examinations were developed specifically for this campaign, some in conjunction with the Canadian Department of Defence and Navy. One involved the ‘Dunker’, a modified helicopter cockpit suspended 6m above the sea, from which candidates would be dropped unceremoniously into the water. They had around 30 seconds to follow precise radio instructions, unlatch themselves and quickly make their way out of a drowning capsule.

In ‘Damage Control’, the candidates were huddled into the simulated underdeck of a submarine. First, in full fire-fighting gear, they battled flames reaching 200°C; then, as the fire was extinguished, the compartment was flooded and a new rescue operation began. Exhausted and under thermal shock, the candidates were being prepared for the unforeseeable emergencies of space travel.

Dextrous Dextre

The Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, known as Dextre, is a new addition to the ISS. It has two arms, each with seven joints, pivots at the waist, and can handle operations previously performed only by spacewalking astronauts.

At the end of each arm is an orbital replacement unit that holds a payload or tool with a vice-like grip. Dextre has force sensors and torque in its grip with automatic compensation to ensure the payload glides smoothly into its mounting fixture. To grab objects, each unit has a retractable motorised socket wrench to turn bolts and mate or detach mechanisms, as well as a camera and lights for close-up viewing. A retractable umbilical connector can provide power, data and video connections to payloads.

Operating Dextre and the Arm is no easy feat, so the CSA provides training in robotics and spatial awareness to astronauts and ground controllers. Viqar Abassi, training programme technical manager and designer of the simulators, says that operators need to be skilled in 3D modelling and be able to reconstruct an image on the video projectors in the control centre. It is difficult, explains Abassi, to manoeuvre without line of sight, and mistakes could damage a part of the ISS or even break the Arm itself, while accidentally released payloads would add to the space debris population.

The CSA created a mock-up of the station’s Mobile Servicing System (MSS) at its facility near Montreal. It is used to train astronauts in software and hardware components of the Arm and Dextre, the various operating modes, camera operations, safety guidelines, payload handling, malfunction/failure handling, and more.

The Virtual Operations Training Environment immerses trainees in a virtual reality where robotic arm movements can be observed and controlled in 3D. Its workstation is connected to a software simulation of the robotics systems, using technology similar to real-time flight simulators and modern video games.

Monitors display different viewing angles, just as they would on the ISS. It’s just like operating a video game, claims Abassi. So perhaps future recruitment pools could be replenished with X-Box mavericks.

Who goes?

In the end, it’s not the candidates’ physical abilities or stamina, teamwork or education that decides who gets to go. It is their psychological constitution that matters most.

CSA’s final selection round involves a series of psychological and psychiatric interviews and tests. Technical malfunctions and catastrophes, separation from family, friends and even the ground one is used to walking on, long periods of isolation and confined spaces are all cause for mental breakdown, anxiety and panic attacks.

So, 18 months into the selection process, the lucky two were announced. Jeremy Hansen and David St Jacques were found to be made of the ‘right stuff’ to replenish the ranks of Canadian astronauts.

They now face a 12-month advanced training course and six months of ISS expedition specific training, completed at the CSA, the Johnson Space Center and the Yuri Gagarin cosmonaut centre in Russia. But the hardest test of all, it seems, is to finally catch a rocket into Space.

Humourously documented by Mike Mullane in his memoir entitled ‘Riding Rockets: the outrageous tales of a Space Shuttle astronaut’, waiting for an assignment can last several years, with periods full of suspicion and bouts of depression.

Why is it so difficult to become an astronaut, when a rich civilian tourist can go to space? ‘A space tourist will never be asked to become a mission specialist, pilot the spacecraft or perform EVAs,’ explains Carbine. ‘There is no room for mistakes in space. You need to have a bit of ‘McGyverism’.’