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What is an Astronaut?

Also known as: Cosmonaut.

In 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) adopted the word astronaut (meaning "sailor among the stars") for the men and women they would train to go into space. The Soviet space agency came up with a similar term, cosmonaut (which means "sailor of the universe") at about the same time.

An astronaut is an individual trained to pilot and/or travel in a spacecraft, work in space, and do activities related to human space exploration. While space flight may now seem routine, every trip into space can be a walk between success and disaster. Therefore most of an astronaut's career is spent undergoing extensive training.

What does an Astronaut do?

In the early days, the job description of an astronaut was basically that of being an observer - someone who would view and document what was happening. It didn't take long for NASA to understand that human interaction would be required.

Today, two types of astronauts are selected for space flights:

Mission Specialist Astronauts
- these astronauts work with pilots to conduct experiments, launch satellites, and maintain spacecraft and equipment. Their background can be in engineering, science, or medicine. They can also work as astronaut educators, inspiring students to consider joining the US space program.

Pilot Astronauts
- these astronauts serve as space shuttle and international space station pilots and commanders. They are responsible for the crew, the mission, the mission success and the safety of the flight.

The Johnson Space Center provides a number of simulators and facilities to prepare the astronauts for their work in space, such as a neutral buoyancy simulator, which simulates weightlessness on earth, and a 200' long and 40' deep pool where astronauts train for spacewalks underwater.

When in orbit, most of the time is spent in the craft or space station. At times, a spacewalk is required to make repairs, or to deploy a satellite, and the astronaut must wear a space suit, or an EMU (extravehicular mobility unit) for protection. Most missions last two to three weeks, but long duration missions may run as long as half a year. Training for long duration missions is very arduous and takes approximately two to three years.

Basic Training for Astronaut Candidates:

Astronaut candidates report to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, which has trained more than 300 U.S. astronauts and 50 astronauts from other countries in its fifty year history. As well, more and more Americans now train at Star City, a cosmonaut training facility near Moscow (especially since the end of the U.S. space shuttle program in 2011).

Basic training is the first phase, lasting two years. The candidates learn about vehicle and space station systems, and most of the training takes place in the classroom. Key disciplines that may prove to be helpful in their work in space are studied, such as meteorology, engineering, space science, and earth sciences.

Survival training must also be completed outside of the classroom (military-water-and-land-survival), in order to prepare for an unplanned landing back on earth. The candidates must become scuba certified, and must also pass a swimming test; they must swim three lengths of a 25-meter (82-foot) pool without stopping, and then swim three lengths of the pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes with no time limit. They must also tread water continuously for 10 minutes while wearing a flight suit. Both the scuba certification and the swimming test must be completed within the first month of training.

Second Phase Training

Candidates may be selected to become astronauts once basic training is complete. During the second phase, the trainees are grouped with experienced astronauts, and with their help become proficient in a variety of activities related to pre-launch, launch, orbit, entry, and landing. The experienced astronauts also share their experiences and knowledge, becoming mentors and advisors to the trainees.

Advanced Mission Training

The advanced mission training phase (lasting ten months) is where the astronauts receive their crew and mission assignments. They focus on exercises, activities, and experiments directly related to their mission, and familiarize themselves with the power tools and other special devices they will use during their mission.

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What is the workplace of an Astronaut like?

An astronaut is a civil servant, and as such, is an employee of the federal government. As a civil servant, astronauts have to go to training sessions, write reports, and attend meetings, similar to any other office worker. When in orbit, an astronaut will spend most of their time in the craft or space station, occasionally having to do a spacewalk to make repairs, or deploy a satellite, etc.

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Further Reading

  • NASA www.nasa.gov

    NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA was started in 1958 as a part of the United States government. NASA is in charge of U.S. science and technology that has to do with airplanes or space.

  • How Astronauts Work science.howstuffworks.com

    Say the word "astronaut" and you'll conjure up visions of heroes and heroic feats: Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom successfully completing suborbital trips; John Glenn orbiting Earth aboard Friendship 7 in a historic five-hour flight; Neil Armstrong stepping down from the lunar module ladder onto the moon's surface; and Jim Lovell stabilizing the Apollo 13 spacecraft after an explosion a little more than 55 hours into the flight.

  • Daily Life in Space channel.nationalgeographic.com

    Orbiting 240 miles from the surface of Earth, day-to-day life aboard the International Space Station is often a mystery to terrestrials. The station is a faint glimmer that appears in the sky for a few minutes at a time—if you happen to be looking up as it passes. From inside, it’s another story.

  • An Astronaut Reveals What Life in Space is Really Like www.wired.com

    There's no way to anticipate the emotional impact of leaving your home planet. You look down at Earth and realize: You’re not on it. It’s breathtaking. It’s surreal. It’s a “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” kind of feeling.

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