How astronauts train in a mountain to bond in space

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How astronauts train in a mountain to bond in space

If you want to travel into space, Inspiration 4 commander Jared Issacman believes that it helps to climb first a mountain in order to bond as a group over a shared physical struggle. Any mountain will do, really, but for the crew of Inspiration 4 — the first team from orbital space bound for spaceX, who had to fly with a SpaceX spacecraft next month — was Mt. Rainier is a 14,100 - ft. volcanic peak in western Washington State.

I wanted them to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable, says Isaacman, 39, because not everything about space will be comfortable.

If that's what he wanted, that's what he got. There was the cloud bank that followed the crew the entire way up their trek to their destination spot at the 10,000 - foot elevation point on the flank of the mountain. There was the cutting cold and the blowing snow and the frozen ham and cheese sandwiches that greeted them when they opened their packs. Plus, over the course of their two-night stay, three day stay, there was constant plodding as well.

'My legs were on fire, says Chris Sembroski, 41, an aerospace engineer of Lockheed Martin in Everett, Washington in everyday life and payload specialist for Inspiration 4. I just had to keep breathing.

In the six decades that human beings have been flying in space, climbing a mountain has never been on the astronaut training must-do checklist. In the six decades human beings have been flying in space, there've never been a mission exactly like Inspiration 4. The brainchild of Isaacman, the billionaire CEO of the online payment company Shift 4 Payments, the mission is equal parts an act of charity and an act of audacity. Isaacman purchased all four seats aboard the For an undisclosed sum and picked his three crewmates which besides Sembroski also include Sian Proctor, 51, a professor of geosciences at SMC in Phoenix, Arizona and Hayley Arceneaux, 30, a childhood cancer survivor and a doctor's assistant at St. Jude.

From the beginning, the group's training differed from any crew before it, and not just because they are so eclectic a band of all-civilian astronauts. There is also the compressed time frame. NASA typically takes two years or more to train a crew for a given mission - not to mention the preceding years astronauts spend in basic training before they qualify for a given mission in the first place. The Inspiration 4 crew received word of their selection in February, began training early April and are targeting flights in September.

'I am learning how to be a system systems engineer in four months, says Proctor. "And I'm not an engineer.

To make that schedule work, the crew got thrown early in the deep end, starting their work making centrifuge runs at the National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Pa. The SpaceX trainers sought as much verisimilitude as they could during those sessions, spinning the sounds of liftoff, reentry and splashdown into the centrifuge chamber and piped the apparatus up to the four-to-6 kg's the crew will actually feel at each of those points in the flight profile. They even added the thud and rocking that they'll experience after hitting the ocean following reentering to enter it all.

The centrifuge can accommodate one person at a time and has helped shape the course of their training. They separated each one of us who had sat on the run from the ones who had not gone through it yet, says Isaacman. Other parts of the crew's training regimen include 60 week, week-long sessions at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. where they alternate their time between simulator training and classroom work. A July morning session began with nothing more glamorous than learning how to open and close the forward hatch while taking care to protect the rubber seals that ring the hatch and keep it airtight from damage by dust or grit, which could lead to a deadly pressure leak. When closed, the hatch must be draped with the equivalent of a sort of high bed sheet — decidedly low tech, albeit with a decidedly low purpose.

'Nothing fancy about it, said Sembroski, as he nevertheless rehearsed and re-rehearsed draping the protective fabric just so.

For the rest of the morning, the crew familiarized themselves with the Cupola — a domed window designed specifically for the Inspiration 4 mission and is being retrofitted to the nose of the spacecraft to maximize viewing opportunities and photography opportunities the astronauts will have during their three days in orbit. Here too, the session seemed deceptively simple at first — learning to stop and look in a window only. Except that this is a 3-layer, air-tight window which separates the crew from the vacuum of structural space and is capable, at least in the event of an anomaly, of external failure. That required the crew to practice sealing the hatch that separates the cockpit from cupola viewing station within 30 seconds. An accident of this kind is highly unlikely: SpaceX tested the cupola at twice the air pressure it will experience in space and at extreme temperatures mimicking the extreme heat of the dark side of Earth and the extreme cold soak of the opposite side. In case it failed, even the crew practiced.

More of the training of that day included detailed classroom instruction on splashdown and recovery — including how to deal with such unlikely emergency as the spacecraft springing a link and beginning to sink, or toxic thruster exhaust filling the cockpit. 'Training is my full time job now, says Arceneaux.

The crew members spend 60 - hour weeks training away from SpaceX, who include themselves in thick briefing books and learning their particular assignments aboard the Spacecraft. As Commander, Isaacman will be responsible for all communications with ground controllers and overseeing the general operation of the Spacecraft. As Pilot, Proctor will execute the commands Isaacman issues and will assume the commander's responsibilities if he is busy with an emergency or other unexpected developments. Sembroski, as Payload Specialist, will see to conducting experiments as well as to stowage and placement of essential equipment - no small matter, since the spacecraft must be elegantly balanced, especially for reentry. Arceneaux will serve as Chief Medical Officer, tending to the physical needs of the crew and running some tests they will carry aloft. A single recent homework assignment Isaacman sent the crew ran more than six pages and over 2,000 words.

On top of everything else, says Proctor, 'there is also the fitness regimen — working out regularly to be ready for the physical demands of space.

The crew members admit they're not quite there yet. Plenty of days and weeks of 10 hour waiting for the plane to leave the planet. But they also have a month and a half to lose training and are learning, like the nearly 600 humans who have preceded them into space, that even before they leave the Earth they already carry some of the shimmer of star travelers in their body.

'We recently visited a space camp and everybody kept referring to us as our astronauts ", says Arceneaux. A few months ago I was just 'Hayley the physician' assistant. This humbler past — for the entire Crew — will be changed for good and all in September.