As with anyone watching movies about space when growing up, astronauts were always fascinating, almost like superheroes to me. They are fearless, resilient, admired by everyone, and they have what it takes to stay for months away in the unknown. The same fascination is what I felt watching the recent commercial space launches of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
With commercial spaceflight on the rise and with businessman like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson travelling to space, the capabilities that used to make an astronaut, are facing a paradigm shift. “The right stuff”, which used to describe the skills and abilities required to be an astronaut are transitioning. Similarly, as commercial pilot recruitment methods constantly progressed over the years, with spaceflight gaining more popularity, the question of how to choose the people with the “new” right stuff arises.
Space travel is nothing new, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Astronaut Alan Shepard achieved to stay in space for more than one hour in 1961. Both went through extensive selection and training to be the first to travel to space. Astronauts are always perceived as an exclusive group, when it all started in the 1960s, initially astronauts were only selected from test-pilots with high-altitude jet aircraft experience, because they were accustomed to air pressure, high g-force and handling complex cockpits. This perception shifted slightly, around the 1970s, when NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) decided to recruit scientists along with aviators to send to mars. However, the screening methods remained robust, only a handful scientists out of thousands could even enter the selection process still making spaceflight very special only accessible to a certain group of people.
While astronauts by original definition “monitor and adjust the cabin environment, operate the communications system, and could take over control of the spacecraft itself”. Nowadays, with enhanced technology and fully automated cockpits, tasks as operating the flight controls became less central. Indicating that, having “the right stuff’ or the right abilities might be slowly shifting into a new era where space travel might become more accessible for anyone with the right means. Virgin Galactic alone aims to launch 400-annual space flights, with tickets priced at $450,000 per person.
Selection & Training
Looking at selection methods of NASA or ESA (The European Space Agency), astronaut candidates go through six stages. After careful screening of applications, they complete cognitive, technical, motor coordination and personality tests, participate in an assessment center, followed by one week of physical examination at a clinic and additional one week of physiological and psychological stress tests. After passing all assessments, they then participate in an in-depth board interview. Only after this rigorous selection process could the selected pilots enter the even more demanding months-long training. All in all, becoming an astronaut can be a 2-year process which includes rocket science and spacecraft engineering classes, physical and mental training in the air, on the ground and under the water. Commercial space travelers on the other hand, are required to have sound English knowledge, physical and physiological fitness to handle up to 5.5 g-force and be 18 years or older. The training to assess such qualification criteria consists of physical and mental fitness checks, weightlessness simulation, exposure to g-forces and gaining understanding how to do simple day-to-day tasks in space as well as emergency drills.
Accordingly signalling not only the paradigm shift in recruitment but also in training methods. Private companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic apply a two-to-three-day training for the people traveling to space compared to the year-long process at NASA. According to launch director Steve Lanius, the Blue Origin crew had a total of 14-hours training, divided into two-day long sessions, consisting of classroom instruction and practice all in compliance with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations.
Developing Human Capital in Commercial Spaceflight
Accordingly, my personal opinion is that, aspects like screening, selection and training for commercial spaceflight is developing and open for improvement:
In terms of selection, the reason NASA initially was only recruiting military high-performance jet test-pilots had numerous motives including, their rapid adaptation to high-altitudes, high g-force, and handling of complex cockpits. With technology and automation, flight handling and operating might have advanced but human physiology and its limitations is still an important aspect to consider. Hence, skills and extensive training to complement these, in terms of human performance might still be a necessary point for commercial spaceflight today.
With commercial space travel on the rise, company and mission specific training based on regulatory standards could make training more efficient. Despite the significant difference between astronauts’ flight missions and duration spend in space, a shift to a 3-day training for commercial spaceflight at this point may seem short. However, as each mission serves different purposes, creating training methods that are constantly evolving in accordance with technology and mission requirements, based on regulatory standards might be more cost and time efficient. Therefore, developing training tools following FAA set safety guidelines for private or commercial astronauts, and leaving the rest of the training subjects to companies might be the savvy option.
Overall, as former NASA Director of Manpower and Industrial/Organizational Psychologist Allen Gamble mentions. The first selection qualifications, methods and criteria were once unknown when he firstly joined the organization in 1958. He and his team of engineers and psychologist established not only the duties of astronauts but also the selection and recruitment stages. Similarly, at this new era of spaceflight, perhaps an innovative selection and training approach that combines flight safety and preparedness for commercial travel is needed.