- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Astronaut Leland D. Melvin has been preparing to go to space for eight years.

Since starting basic training in August 1998, he has spent time in Russia with cosmonauts and worked at NASA headquarters in Southwest selecting the current group of educator-astronauts.

His recent assignment has been to the robotics branch of the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he is learning to use the robotic arms on the space shuttle and the International Space Station. He says he’ll be ready when it’s his turn to put his skills into practice.

“Ninety percent of our time here is really doing things to ensure that the current missions are going to go off flawlessly,” he says. “I can’t wait to go to space.”

Training to be an astronaut takes years of dedication and hard work. Applicants who make it through the rigorous selection process spend hours developing expertise in many areas before they blast off for outer space.

(The space shuttle Discovery and its seven-member crew, which launched on July 4 from the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Fla., is set to land Monday.)

Astronauts should adhere to the motto “Train like you’re going to fight, and fight like you’re going to train,” says Air Force Col. Michael Bloomfield, chief instructor astronaut at Johnson Space Center, who oversees instructors dealing with the space shuttle. He traveled to space three times with NASA missions, in 1997 and 2002 on Atlantis, and in 2000 on Endeavour.

“It’s absolutely critical that you train for the mission on the ground the same way you think you will execute it in the air, with the same people, doing the same tasks, using the same checklists,” Col. Bloomfield says.

At least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, mathematics or science and being a U.S. citizen are among the basic qualifications for being an astronaut, says Duane Ross, manager for astronaut candidate selection and training at the Johnson center.

Pilot astronauts need 1,000 hours of jet piloting time, and mission specialists need three years of professional experience after earning their degree, he says.

For the 2004 astronaut class, about 2,350 applicants met the basic qualifications. A rating panel narrows the group to 300 to 400 persons.

The candidates must undergo the Federal Aviation Administration Class 3 flight physical, which includes a vision test. Mission specialists must have at least 20/200 vision, correctable to 20/20, and pilots must have at least 20/70 vision, correctable to 20/20. Candidates who have undergone Lasik eye surgery are disqualified.

The astronaut selection board decides who will be interviewed, usually a group of 100 to 120 persons. Those candidates then undergo a NASA flight physical.

Then the board conducts interviews and makes recommendations on who should be selected, Mr. Ross says.

After candidates have met all the pertinent criteria, Mr. Ross says he is looking for “nice people, who get along with other people and communicate well.”

“If you are not a team player, this is not the job for you,” he says. “Astronauts have to deal with a lot of different kinds of people and do it well.”

The director of the Johnson center, currently former astronaut Michael L. Coats, makes the decisions after briefing NASA headquarters.

For the 2004 class, the most recent one, 11 persons were selected, Mr. Ross says. The next class will be no sooner than 2008.

New astronauts undergo basic training for about a year, says Debbie Trainor, training specialist of the astronaut office at the Johnson center. The class of 2004 finished basic training in February.

The instruction includes an introduction to the basic shuttle systems and the International Space Station. T-38 aircraft training, water survival training, scuba training and land survival training also are part of the education.

After basic training, the astronauts move into generic specialty training, such as space walk, robotics or pilot instruction, Mrs. Trainor says. Training for space walking takes place in a water tank called a neutral buoyancy laboratory.

“You need to be healthy and very physically fit to be a space walker,” Mrs. Trainor says. “It’s very trying. The spacesuit will rub against your shoulders and bunch against your elbows. It takes a lot out of you.”

It usually is a few years before an astronaut is given a mission, she says. However, once the astronauts are assigned to a specific mission, they train for its objectives. The commander of the crew usually is a shuttle pilot who has flown twice.

“They go through so many training simulations,” Mrs. Trainor says. “It’s that old theory that you expect the worst, and when you see it, it’s really not so bad. When the training team sends multiple malfunctions at them, when they fly and have few malfunctions, certainly they can handle a few.”

Despite all the practice, there is no way to prepare completely for traveling to outer space, says Navy Capt. Kent V. Rominger, chief of the astronaut office at the Johnson center. He has participated in five NASA missions, in 1995 and 1996 on Columbia, 1997 and 1999 on Discovery, and 2001 on Endeavour.

“You are more nervous in space,” Capt. Rominger says. “The fact that you are floating, the perspective is a little bit different. You are more prone to making a mistake. Because of that, I was conscious of it and more concerned, particularly initially.”

Long missions require even more preparation, says retired Air Force Col. Carl E. Walz, director of the advanced capabilities division in the exploration systems mission directorate at NASA headquarters.

He has traveled to space four times, in 1993 on Discovery, in 1994 on Columbia, in 1996 on Atlantis, and in 2001 on Endeavour to the International Space Station, where he spent 61/2 months.

He spent 41/2 years training for the 2001 mission, including participating in a Russian simulation in which the air was removed from the space module until a leak could be found.

“The training paid off, particularly when we did our space walks,” Col. Walz says. “We had some problems with the spacesuits, and we were able to make repairs.”

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