NASA pilots enter new frontier

(U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Bobby Cummings)

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — NASA astronauts underwent full-pressure suit training at the 9th Physiological Support Squadron, July 7, 2016. The astronauts conducted training in a hypobaric chamber at simulated altitudes of more than 70,000 ft.

Lt. Col. Nicole Mann, United States Marine Corps, NASA astronaut, and Christina Koch, NASA astronaut, are currently in Space Flight Readiness Training (SFRT) for NASA. SFRT exists to expose aircrew to environments similar to those they may encounter in spacecraft.

Throughout the majority of SFRT training astronauts pilot T-38 Talon’s. But, pilots are also required to operate NASA’s WB-57, an aircraft designed to fly at altitudes greater than 60,000 ft. The WB-57 is similar to the U-2 Dragon Lady in design and performance. Likewise, pilots of the WB-57 must also wear full-pressure suits during flight.

“NASA is looking at using the WB-57 to compliment the T-38 training by exposing us to full-pressure suits and operating in high-altitude environments,” Mann said. “While in space we will be operating in full-pressure suits and extravehicular mobility units. This gives us an opportunity to experience operating at altitudes at the edge of space for the first time.”

Astronauts are often involved in designing the suits with the engineers in the space program. Having the familiarization with the suits is crucial in gaining exposure to this type of training.

“We are evaluating our pressure suits for the future,” Mann said. “This exposure gives us an idea of what current pressure suits can do, how they feel and function.”

The demands placed on humans to operate safely and effectively in space are substantial. The sum of astronaut training is incredibly difficult, however there is one training scenario Mann and Koch attribute to being the most challenging.

“Most demanding for myself has been the spacewalk training,” Koch said. “Being in a full spacewalk suit which we call the extravehicular mobility unit for six hours working hard. The full six hour spacewalk training is a metabolic equivalent to running a marathon. It is extremely physically demanding.”

Koch recognized the similarities between spacewalk training and what U-2 Dragon Lady pilots experience during mission.

“It’s interesting to hear U-2 pilots fly 8-12 hour sorties because the two scenarios are comparable especially considering the mental challenges,” she said.

After Mann and Koch completed their training at Beale, they were adamant in pointing out the professionalism of the Airmen they encountered and the value of the training they received.

“Be aware of more blue-suits around this base because we hope to be sending more astronauts to this training,” Koch said. “There is no doubt how valuable this experience has been for us and it’s interesting to see how another organization approaches a high performance program such as this one that relies upon a lot of different skill sets.”

Mann also expressed a positive reaction regarding the training she received.

“I think the training here was indispensable,” Mann said. “We came here as the initial test case to see if this is something going forward astronauts would benefit from. From my experience this training is absolutely valuable for astronaut training. Not only being in the chamber but the academics, ground training, suit integration and understanding all of the effort required to maintain the full-pressure suit.”

Lastly, the pilots weighed in on the necessity of the NASA space program and the continued exploration of space.

“It’s important to have something as a country we strive for, which is greater than ourselves and greater than anything that is here on earth,” Koch said. “I believe the space program unifies us not only as Americans but as humans. As humans we are inherently curious and space exploration may lead to answers to some natural questions that all people have about our universe.”

Mann delivered a more earthly point of view.

“It’s vitally important for the human race to continue to expand and explore,” Mann said. “It’s interesting to not only look outward but to look back upon on our planet and understand how fragile our planet is. There is still so much for us to discover about earth and what we can do to protect it.”