NASA’s astronauts are not ready for deep space

The space agency has not yet developed a specialized training program for astronauts, lacks critical equipment such as new spacesuits to protect them from lethal levels of radiation and is still pursuing a range of technologies to lay the groundwork for a more permanent human presence, according to NASA officials. internal studies and space travel experts.

“This time you need astronauts who will actually come out and start living on the moon,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in an interview. “We need to build habitats up there. So you need a new kind of astronaut.”

The goal, Nelson said, is more ambitious than ever: to “sustain human life for long periods of time in a hostile environment.”

However, like NASA’s Artemis project approaching launch, it is becoming increasingly clear that even if the new rockets and spacecraft it pursues remain on schedule, the program’s high goals may be lowered by the harsh limits of human reality.

Lack of training

First, it will require a special caliber of men and women to confront a completely different set of circumstances than the low-Earth missions that NASA has carried out for decades aboard the International Space Station or the now-retired space shuttle.

NASA recently named its first new class of astronauts in four years – what Nelson described as a combination of military pilots, scientists, an Olympic man and offering “a great diversity.”

But it has not assigned crews to the first two manned Artemis missions – the month-long trip around the moon in 2024 and then to the moon’s surface as early as 2025.

There is also no training program for the lunar missions.

NASA’s internal watchdog has sounded the alarm about the lack of a more sophisticated regime to hone a broader set of skills.

“The Astronaut Office is in the process of developing a framework for Artemis training, but this framework has not been formally chartered, nor has any Artemis crew been announced,” the NASA Inspector General said in a recent report. “As such, specific mission-focused training for the Artemis II mission – the first manned Artemis flight – has not yet begun.”

Training will eventually be necessary for a wide range of tasks – including operate various spacecraft and withstand the physical and psychological strains of the lunar environment.

We will have new training modules and new training protocols to meet lunar missions, ”said Philip McAlister, who oversees missions to the space station at NASA, in an interview. “These missions can be shorter in duration, longer in duration, you can have a few different spacecraft.”

That means learning to land on the moon itself, which NASA has not done since its last Apollo mission in 1972.

“You can go up on Orion [spacecraft], but if you have to land on the surface, you’ll have to go down on the lander, ”McAlister said. “It’s going to require some unique training.”

While many of the flight operations will be automated, he added: “There is always a role for the crew.”

Another expected task on lunar missions will be to monitor the extraction of resources from the lunar surface.

“We’re going to land at the moon’s south pole,” Nelson said, “where we think resources such as water are located, helping us make rocket fuel.”

But it also means recruiting more highly trained lunar scientists.

“For example, geology was recently identified as a specific professional skill required for Artemis missions to the Moon and Mars,” NASA’s IG reported. “The corps currently has four astronauts with professional training in geology-related fields, two of whom have been in the corps for over 15 years.”

‘Ernie Shackleton’s

A popular analogy these days for who and what is required for the Artemis endeavors is the three expeditions to Antarctica in the early 20th century led by the British explorer Ernest Shackleton.

“It’s the Ernie Shackleton type of people who are willing to just explore to improve humanity and take a one-way trip with no guarantee of getting home – to push the boundaries of the possible,” the retired Air Force said Col. Jack Fischer, who spent four and a half months on the space station in 2017.

The biggest obstacle may simply be human fragility – and the unknown toll that more than a few days in deep space may require.

“The biggest difference between the space station and the moon or Mars is radiation,” said Terry Virts, a retired Air Force colonel and space station commander who steered the space shuttle and traveled in orbit aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsule. “The radiation environment is just much worse in the deep space. You do not have to practice it. We know what it does. It gives you cancer. We do not have to practice getting cancer.”

NASA acknowledges that it still does not even have the right spacesuits for its lunar crews.

“They will need a new generation of spacesuits to enable capabilities that go beyond what was achieved in the Apollo era,” James Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems exploration, told Congress last month. “NASA has started working with the commercial space industry to get new space suits.”

The space agency plans to send dozens of “robotic science studies and technological experiments” to the moon’s surface. Under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, it has contracted for seven such lunar deliveries until 2024.

“Some of these missions can help us find resources, such as water, and potentially extract those resources on the moon,” Free said.

But the new era of the space program is not just about expanding the boundaries of science; it is also about building colonies far from Earth. And it will require humans, not just robots.

The development of techniques to help astronauts survive in deep space – including ensuring they have enough oxygen to breathe – requires much more attention, said Virts, who was part of an eight-person flight crew in 2019, which broke the world record for sailing around the earth via both poles.

“Equipment [that will be used on the Artemis missions] is what we should practice on the space station, ”he said. “You could get five years of operating experience with a carbonation machine or with the training equipment. The training equipment we have on the space station does not come to the moon or Mars because it is gigantic. ”

And depending on how long astronauts have to live on the moon, another wild card is the potential psychological toll.

A recent study evaluated ways to deal with remote isolation by studying the behavior of two “space architects” who participated in a 61-day mission in North Greenland “to simulate human living conditions in the habitat as a prototype of a human settlement on the Moon.”

It found that minimizing the consequences of extended human isolation and feelings of resignation will require new strategies to maintain social contact, physical activity, and ensure that specific daily tasks and activities are well-defined.

By all accounts, NASA still has a huge amount of work to do to outline what its exploration missions will require.

“When we went to the moon during the Apollo program, every moment on the surface was planned – whether it was collecting rocks at a certain time or eating at certain times – but it was a very short mission,” said Jack Stuster, a cultural anthropologist. and expert in human factors.

He completed a study for the Johnson Space Center in 2019 that outlined the tasks and social and physical capabilities required for long-distance missions into deep space – including aboard the Gateway, a small moon orbiting space station NASA has planned.

“It was absurd that you would have serious plans – people actually expect this to happen within a decade – without specifying what people would do during the mission, whether it’s to the moon or to Mars,” Stuster said in a interview.

‘Another set of qualities’

Others claim that the space agency has underestimated what it takes to achieve much more than returning to the moon for a few days, as during the Apollo era. (The longest stay on the moon was during the Apollo 17 mission: 74 hours, 59 minutes, and 38 seconds.)

“Colonizing the bottom of the oceans is actually a lot easier, and we are not talking about doing that,” said Donald Goldsmith, an astrophysicist and co-author of “The End of Astronauts: Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration.”

He said there is little doubt that NASA can return astronauts to the moon’s surface. But it has not fully evaluated “the step from a few astronauts on the moon to a real colony on the moon.”

“A few Apollo-lander equivalents could live there a little, and supplies could arrive, including food and fuel,” he said. “But how do you build out of it? You have to have a regular fleet of things. It takes a lot of tons. In the long run, they talk about extracting the moon – there are a lot of raw materials – but of course it requires a lot of equipment.”

Virts said he is particularly concerned about what it all means for the well-being of lunar scientists.

“We do not know what the long-term effects of spaceflight are because they have never provided retired astronauts with health care,” he said. “We do not know if they get broken bones more often, or if they catch a cold more often. Or if they get Alzheimer’s more often, or if they get cancer more often. ”

“It would be a good piece of data to have before we send guys off to the moon or Mars,” he added. The Russians have the data. NASA does not. “

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine are in the middle of a detailed study for NASA of biological and physical sciences, focusing on human spaceflight beyond low orbit around the Earth. Its recommendations will only come sometime in 2023, just before the Artemis mission is to be blown up for its month-long lunar orbit.

But who will ultimately be the adventurers who pursue NASA’s larger lunar target after that? Fischer recalled a recent reunion of astronauts, sitting next to Dylan Taylor, the entrepreneur and CEO of Voyager Space, who recently became the 606th human to travel to space aboard the Blue Origins New Shepard rocket.

“I do not know they will be NASA,” Fischer said, predicting that private astronauts could become the next vanguard in deep space. “I do not know what NASA will look like in the future. But they have to [need] another set of qualities. “

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