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Astronaut Training for the Mercury Flights



Table of Contents

Introduction

The Mercury Seven
Academic Training

Static Training
Dynamic Training

Egress and Survival Training
Mission and Preparation Training
Summary

References

Introduction

The Mercury Program was the beginning of United States’ manned, exploration of space. The seven men chosen to be the first astronauts came from many different backgrounds, but soon would become heroes of their country and the world. The men went through a meticulous selection process and a very vigorous and fast paced training program. All of the astronauts, except for one, flew in the Mercury missions and returned to Earth safely. These men were the first test subjects for flights to the Moon, and in the near future, Mars and beyond.

The Mercury Seven

The call for the original astronauts was a rigorous and intense search for the best six men. The main requirements for the selection process were excellent health, a college degree in some form of engineering field, and 1500 hours of high performance aircraft time. After the intense search, the panel could not narrow the field down to six, so they decided to add another astronaut (Carpenter 2002). The Mercury Seven included, Alan B. Shepard Jr., Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirrah, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton.



Figure 2 Mercury Seven astronauts (WWW-5)

After the press conference, announcing America’s first astronauts, the astronauts were given time off to prepare for the long and rigorous training. Three weeks after their press conference, the seven astronauts reported to Langley Field, Virginia where the Space Task Group was headquartered (Carpenter p. 203).

On Monday April 27, 1959, the seven astronauts began their training. They walked into a large office containing seven gray desks, seven small chairs, and a gray wastebasket. They all sat in the room and waited for their assignments. After a short briefing on the status and nature of the program, they immediately received their own specialized tasks for the Mercury program. (Carpenter, 2002) These specialized tasks consisted of individual engineering assignments that each astronaut would become an expert in. The tasks were assigned by the level of knowledge and experience each astronaut held in that particular field. Scott Carpenter specialized in Communication equipment and procedures, periscope operation, navigational aids and procedures, Gordon Cooper specialized in the Redstone booster, including configuration, trajectory, aerodynamics, countdown, and flight procedures, John Glenn specialized in the cockpit layout or configuration, instrumentation, and controls for capsule and simulation, Gus Grissom specialized in the reaction control systems, hand controller, autopilot and horizon scanners, Walter Schirra specialized in the environmental control systems, pilot support and restraint, pressure suit, aeromedical monitoring, Alan Shepard specialized in the recovery systems, parachutes, recovery aids, recovery procedures and range network, and Deke Slayton specialized in the atlas booster and escape system including configuration, trajectory, aerodynamics, countdown, and flight procedures (WWW-1).

The astronaut was present at all the meetings that pertained to his field of knowledge for the mission. After the meetings, the astronaut would return to the other six, and give them a briefing on whatever new features or standards their area of expertise had come up with.

Since this was the first time that anyone had tried to put a man in space, there were no set pattern of training the instructors could follow.

“Three basic philosophies were adopted for the training, a) Utilize any training device or method which has even remote possibilities of being of value b) Make the training as difficult as possible with these devices even though analytical studies indicate the task is relatively easy c) Conduct the training on an informal basis except in the interest of intelligent scheduling of instructor and trainer time since we were all assumed to be well-motivated mature individuals” (Slayton p. 53).

These were the codes that the instructors and astronauts were to abide by in order to quickly and successfully complete the training process in the least amount of time possible. The training was broken down into distinctive sections. These sections composed of “academics, static training devices, dynamic training devices, egress and survival training, and specific mission training” (Slayton p. 53).

Academic Training

The academic program, conducted at the Langley Research Center, consisted of refresher courses in celestial mechanics and aerodynamics. Since these men were going through the atmosphere to reach orbit, they also had to posses a good deal of knowledge in the fields of meteorology, astronomy, astrophysics, geophysics, space trajectories, rocket engines, and physiology. All of these fields had to be learned so that the astronaut could accurately and quickly, react to any problems that may occur throughout the flight. Along with the classroom training, the astronauts also received on site training. The astronauts went to the locations where the different components of the spacecraft were being fabricated. They got to see the way the spacecraft was built and which components did what jobs for the spacecraft. With their extensive knowledge as test pilots and realizing that their lives were on the line, they were able to make recommendations for their safety and comfort for the spacecraft.

Static Training

The static training devices were the astronaut’s first hands-on training for the program. “One early approach used for practicing of retro-maneuvers and reentry maneuvers consisted of an analog computer tied in with a locally constructed hand controller and prototype flight instruments to allow us practice in flight control while we were waiting for the productions trainer” (Slayton p. 54). The completed production procedures trainer, made by McDonnell Aircraft, was a two-person trainer. The astronaut would sit in an enclosed casing while an instructor sat outside. Both the astronaut and instructor would have the same instrumentation in front of them. The instructor would impose a scenario and the astronaut would have to react to the problem. With the same instrumentation in front of the two, the instructor could watch the progress, and at the end of the session, provide feedback and recommendations to the astronaut. This trainer was also used to give the astronauts practice on actual Mercury flight plans so that they may become familiar with the task that will be placed upon them.

“The ALFA Trainer, or Air Lubricated Free Attitude Trainer consisted of a contoured couch that was mounted on top of an air bearing. The bearing, which was essentially frictionless, and with the use of a Mercury hand-controller which actuates compressed-air jet, allowed this trainer to be stabilized and controlled on all three axes” (Slayton p. 55). The trainer was completely closed with only a periscope for outside viewing mounted between the astronaut’s legs. To help the astronauts maintain their trajectory on the dark side of the Earth, they used their astronomy training, which was conducted at the Moorehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina. The star recognition would be very important to the survival of the astronaut in case manual flight would be required.

Dynamic Training

The dynamic training devices consisted of stress training. The astronauts had to complete the “Complex Behavior Simulator which everyone called the Panic Box” (Carpenter p. 190). This was the most dreaded by the astronauts. The Panic Box contained a panel of 12 signals that all read zero. The instructor would sit outside of the box and start making lights go off indicating spacecraft malfunctions. The astronaut’s job was to maintain the gauges a zero which was the stable point. Carpenter states, If the machine got ahead of you-one gauge for instance, could go out of the green and into the red area-and stayed there in the danger area for five seconds, then a big red light began to flash for perhaps five seconds. If that light flashed for five seconds and you still hadn’t taken corrective action, then a siren went off-to let you know the machine had really gotten ahead of you…Multiply this by twelve, with everything happening simultaneously. So while this entire contraption is going full tilt, with maybe a red light flashing on one or two signals, you’re busy on three or four others trying to keep their indicators centered at zero. Sensory overload (p. 190).

The weightlessness and zero-g training was essential due to the lack of gravity in space. The astronauts flew on a C-131 aircraft in parabolic flight path similar to that of a roller coaster. The up and down path gave the astronauts about 15 seconds of weightlessness where the astronauts could feel the effects of zero-g’s. The astronauts were able to tell the instructors whether or not they felt they could perform essential tasks, for their missions. They also flew on the KC-135 aircraft where they would experience 30 seconds of continuous weightlessness. To simulate the effects of the Mercury capsule, the astronauts flew in the back of the cramped F-100 aircraft and felt the effects of weightlessness while tightly strapped in.


Figure 4 Astronauts aboard the C-130 Aircraft during weightlessness training (WWW-7)



The opposite of the weightlessness training was the high-g load training conducted at the Johnsville human centrifuge. The trainer consists of a large round device mounted on the end of a long circling arm. The large round device contained a mockup of the Mercury control panel and a hand controller. “The gondola was sealed so that the astronauts could depressurize the device to the actual flight pressure of 5 pounds per square inch. It could simulate flying at 27,000 feet with a 5 pound per square inch, 100 percent oxygen atmosphere” (Slayton p. 56). The astronauts would note the effects they felt and report whether or not they felt they would be able to carry out specific tasks in this high-g loading. Some astronauts experienced g-loadings as high as 18g. This device would test the consciousness levels, vision characteristics, speaking, and breathing techniques of the astronauts during these stressful periods. The device also had the capability to go into a tumble which the astronauts could use to simulate the affects of going from a high-g loading to a negative-g loading rapidly. In abort situations, “the accelerations would go from 10g to -10g in approximately 1 second” (p. 57).


Figure 5 The Centrifuge Trainer at the Johnsville Center (WWW-8)



MASTIF training was conducted at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. MASTIF stands for multi-axis spin test inertia facility. For this device, a seat was placed on top of a large gimbal. The device contained the Mercury flight instrumentation. “From an external control station, high-powered nitrogen jets could be actuated which would revolve the device up to 30 r.p.m. (revolutions per minute) about all three axes simultaneously” (Slayton p. 57). The astronauts had the task of righting the device and bringing it back to stabilization. The device was used to simulate emergency situations where the capsule could enter into a tumbling rotation.


Figure 6 View of the MASTIF trainer (WWW-9)



The astronauts also went through heat and carbon dioxide training. For the heat training, the astronauts dressed in their space suits and climbed into a large steel box. Once inside, the temperature in the box was raised to a temperature of up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

The astronauts also took advantage of carbon dioxide training in Bethesda, Maryland. “The astronauts climbed into the chamber; it was sealed; and the carbon dioxide content was gradually increased from a normal 0.05 percent to approximately 4 percent over a period of 3 hours. They were able to note the physiological effects such as increased breathing, pulse rate, flushing, and in some cases, a slight headache” (Slayton p. 57).

The voluntary activities that the astronauts had included flying the F-102A aircraft and participating in athletics. The astronauts wanted to able to continue flying high performance aircraft to keep sharp in their split second decision-making skills. They felt that was very important to retaining their focus. For athletics, the astronauts could take part in such sports as tennis, racquetball, and swimming. It was up to the astronauts to take part in any form of athletics, but as competitive as they were, all participated in some from of athletic activity.

Egress and Survival Training

The next part of the training consisted of egress and survival training. Since the primary recovery areas for the flights were in the ocean, the astronauts had to learn to quickly get out of the capsule in water. First, the astronauts went to Little Creek, Virginia, “to begin training with the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT)…precursors to the Navy SEALs” (Carpenter p. 204). They began at a pool at Langley field and finished off their training in the estuaries of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Next, the seven astronauts went to the hydrodynamics tank at the Langley Research Center and practiced getting out of the capsule in smooth and artificially induced rough water. After that, they took the capsule into the Gulf of Mexico on a barge. The capsule was dropped overboard and the astronauts practiced egressing in extremely rough waters. The astronauts had the options of jumping into the water and then inflate their life raft, or inflate their life raft, then jump into the water. Another egressing method practiced was one in which the recovery helicopter would drop a hook to the astronaut waiting inside the floating capsule. The helicopter would lift the astronaut directly from the capsule to the helicopter. The final method of egress available was the underwater egress. The astronaut would blow the side door hatch and wait for the capsule to fill with water. Once the capsule began to sink, the astronaut could swim out and up to the surface. Each astronaut could choose which method of egress they intended to use. In conjunction with the water egress training, the astronauts also spent about a day in a one man raft learning how to signal, protect themselves from the sun, and survive until the rescue forces could arrive.


Figure 7 John Glenn during egress training (WWW-10)

The astronauts spent about three days in desert survival training. This was incorporated into their training program because of the remote possibility they could land in Africa. This training was completed at Stead Air Force Base near Reno, Nevada. During this training, they learned how to “protect themselves from the sun, how to utilize the limited water supply, and to build clothing and shelter from their parachutes” (Slayton p. 59).


Figure 8 Mercury astronauts during desert survival training (WWW-11)



Mission and Preparations Training

The final training the astronauts received was their specific mission preparations. This was about eight weeks in length at Cape Canaveral. While at the Cape, the astronaut attends all of the spacecraft checkouts, practices launch procedures with the launch and flight controllers, and also practice the specific parameters or his mission. Along with the specific flight plan, the astronaut also practiced any emergency procedure that anyone could anticipate. The last training before launch was the ingress training. This training was to practice as capsule egress in case of a pad emergency. The launch pad crew and astronauts carefully practiced the emergency procedure until everyone felt that they have the procedure down pat.

Summary

Although this training process was rapid and extremely intense, the success of the Mercury missions could be attributed to the training the astronauts received. As Deke Slayton mentioned, “the success of any training program can only be evaluated when compared with an actual flight. It appears that our training was entirely adequate for this flight and nothing was missed” (Slayton p. 61).


Figure 9 Launch of Mercuy Atlas 4 (WWW-12)



References


WWW-1 Astronaut Training Program Summary.
Available: http://www.pambytes.com/mercury-redstone3/trainingsummary.html
Accessed: January 14, 2004.

WWW-2 How Project Mercury Worked.
Available: http://science.howstuffworks.com/project-mercury1.htm
Accessed: January 14, 2004.

WWW-3 Medical Aspects of Training.
Available: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4003/ch5-8.htm
Accessed: January 14, 2004.

WWW-4 The Race for Space.
Available: http://www1.umn.edu/scitech/assign/space/mercury~med1.html
Accessed: January 14, 2004.

Slayton, D. (1961). Pilot Training and Preflight Preparation. In Proceedings of a Conference on Results of the First U.S. Manned Suborbital Space Flight (pp. 53-60). Washington, DC: NASA.

Carpenter, S. (2002) For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut. Orlando, Fl: Harcourt, INC.

WWW-5 Mercury Seven astronauts
Available: http://science.howstuffworks.com/project-mercury1.htm
Accessed: February 28, 2004

WWW-6 John Glenn in the Procedures Trainer
Available: http://grinhq.nasa.gov/images/small/gpn-2002-000044.jpg
Accessed: February 28, 2004

WWW-7 Astronauts aboard the C-130 Aircraft during weightlessness training
Available: http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/images/small/gpn-2002-000039.jpg
Accessed February 28, 2004

WWW-8 The Centrifuge Trainer at Johnsville Center
Available: http://isda.jsc.nasa.gov/books/mercury/resized-jpg/p16.jpg
Accessed: February 28, 2004

WWW-9 View of the MASTIF trainer
Available: http://www.grc.nasa.gov/www/pao/images/fullsize/mastif.gif
Accessed: February 28, 2004

WWW-10 John Glenn during egress training
Available: http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/mirrors/images/html/ma6.htm
Accessed: February 28, 2004

WWW-11 Mercury astronauts during desert survival training
Available: http://science.howstuffworks.com/project-mercury1.htm
Accessed: February 28, 2004

WWW-12 Launch of Mercury Atlas 4
Available: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/database/mastercatalog?sc=1961-025A
Accessed: February 28, 2004