NASA's new breed of astronaut

The space station, now fully staffed, demands diplomats, not jet jockeys.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Robert Thirsk of the Canadian Space Agency (back row, R) answers a question during a crew news conference with the International Space Station's first six-member crew, Expedition 20, in this image from NASA TV June 1. The crew members are (L-R) Koichi Wakata, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Frank De Winne, European Space Agency, ISS Commander Gennady Padalka and Roman Romanenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Mike Barratt, and Thirsk.
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Some 48 years after the first humans rocketed into space, the International Space Station – now, finally, fully staffed – is redefining the "right stuff" astronauts need to succeed in space.

Yes, some rocket riders still have a military background and a yen to live life on the edge. And it is true that donning a spacesuit, leaving the air lock, and spending six hours floating in space as you fix your orbiting home still does require a cool head.

But now that the International Space Station is hosting its full, six-member crew, the derring-do of jet jockeys is less in demand than comfort with other cultures – like someone who knows where and when to shake a Russian cosmonaut's hand.

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Space station astronauts will spend four to six months of their lives in a set of high-tech tubes no bigger than a 747 passenger jet, sleeping in a bedroom the size of a phone booth, and staring at the same faces every morning. Escaping out the front door for a brief walk around the neighborhood is not an option.

This makes the process of choosing a space station astronaut more than science – it approaches diplomacy, with selectors attempting to build an orbiting family from a potpourri of astronauts from different cultures.

The task starts with selecting the appropriate people as new astronauts, says Duane Ross, who heads the astronaut selection office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Scientific and engineering know-how are a must, of course. But so are inventiveness, patience, and humility.

"You have to be able to keep your ego in check," he cautions. "You can fake anything" for a week or two, just to get through a short mission, he says. But you can't fake being a team player for four months.

Also crucial is how well candidates think and act on their feet when a lot of activity is going on around them – or in the galley. The ability to improvise is a trait that uncovers secrets that formal training manuals don't cover: Like the incredible versatility of tortillas, or the importance of duct tape in gourmet cooking – seemingly mundane innovations that make life on orbit more enjoyable.

More candidates are signing up to try their hand. In 2007, NASA hung out the help-wanted sign for a new class of astronauts. The agency received slightly more than 3,500 applications. It's expected to announce the class of 2009 soon, adding 15 to 20 newcomers to its corps of some 90 astronauts. Last month the European Space Agency (ESA) tapped six new astronauts from 8,400 applications, bringing its list of active astronauts to 14. Canada and Japan have also added astronauts recently.

The most promising and adaptable candidates become apparent during two years of basic training, which includes two-week sessions of outdoor leadership training and shorter stints in the field during survival training. By the end, the new crop of astronauts can decide if they want to aim for the shuttle or the space station.

Some people – like astronauts with children – simply don't have the time to spend six months circling Earth.

But other factors come into play as well: such as whether the crew members will drive one another crazy.

"Clearly, as people, we get along with some people better than others," says Sandra Magnus, who returned to Earth March 28 after spending 4-1/2 months on the space station. "You certainly take that into account for a long-duration mission. You don't want to put people together who might not get along as well as you might like."

For the most part, though, astronauts of whatever nation have a great deal in common, said Canada's Robert Thirsk, who arrived at the space station with the ESA's Frank De Winn and Russia's Roman Romanenko May 27.

"What's interesting is how similar astronauts are," he said during a preflight briefing. "We have this passion for exploration, for innovation, for doing a better job."

But it still helps to remember others' culture. "When I shake hands with Roman," he continued, "I won't do it across a doorway," a nod to a pervasive Russian custom.

An astronaut slated for the station undergoes a markedly different style of training than would a shuttle crew member, however.

Shuttle crews must focus on a limited set of mission-critical tasks that must be performed within the short time the shuttle can stay on orbit – roughly two weeks. This means training repeatedly on a specific set of tasks, with mission planners developing detailed contingency plans to reduce the amount of chin-scratching if something goes wrong.

On the space station, the script and schedule are more fungible. "We're always going to be there the next day," says Ms. Magnus.

As a result, training focuses more on general skills than on specific tasks. "We become sort of a jack-of-all-trades," she says.

That includes experimenting in the galley. Magnus has become the Rachael Ray of the astronaut corps – and in space, that is no trivial issue. Tasty food is a key component to maintaining morale, whether in space, on a submarine, or anywhere else teams of people work in relative isolation for long periods of time.

Among her other space-station skills, Magnus is celebrated for devising a way to add onions to the space station menu. Armed with extra Ziploc bags for mixing bowls, a little duct tape (of course), and some hints from predecessor Peggy Woodsum on the fine art of roasting garlic in the Russian food warmer, she expanded the station's culinary palate.

Another star of mealtime: the humble tortilla.

"Tortillas are wonderful," Magnus enthuses. "We were swimming in tortillas, and we were very happy about it. [Astronaut Michael Barratt] and I independently have asked for lots of tortillas. They're a good base for everything."

The crew has a five-day workweek, with a daily schedule that is scripted but flexible and includes an exercise period. The crew devotes half of each Saturday to housekeeping chores, such as vacuuming and dusting.

They often volunteer the other half, which technically is free time, for additional work with science experiments or on educational projects.

Sundays are full days off, with time to chat with families, read e-mail, or gaze out at the planet below. Every two weeks, crew members have a chat with a psychologist.

None in the history of the space station has had a "Shining" moment, when all work and no exits might make an astronaut dive off the deep end. But if it did, the crew has a range of options for restraining someone, physically and with sedatives. A quick call to the flight surgeon in mission control triggers an emergency meeting to figure out the next steps to take.

But astronauts say the likelihood of needing to implement those procedures is remote. For instance, the crew making up the current expedition has trained together for five years, says Russia's Mr. Romanenko.

"We know each other very well. We know what to expect from each other.... We're this big international space family."

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