NASA's new breed of astronaut
The space station, now fully staffed, demands diplomats, not jet jockeys.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."