It was Survival 101. Wearing camouflage gear and taste testing leaves and roots probably was not the kind of training NASA’s new group of astronauts had anticipated, but that’s the way it was. The 11 astronaut candidates, including educator astronauts, military pilots, physicians, an astrophysicist, an engineer and a Navy SEAL, did Land Survival Training at the Navy’s wilderness site near Rangeley, Maine. With them were three Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronauts. The training began early Monday with an introduction and gear pick-up — standard camouflage clothing, two canteens, a bayonet, iodine tablets, a poncho with liner, a compass and a map.
Survival Menu: Grasshoppers, Roots, Leaves
It was Survival 101.
Wearing camouflage gear and taste testing leaves and roots probably was not the kind of training NASA’s new group of astronauts had anticipated, but that’s the way it was.
The 11 astronaut candidates, including educator astronauts, military pilots, physicians, an astrophysicist, an engineer and a Navy SEAL, did Land Survival Training at the Navy’s wilderness site near Rangeley, Maine. With them were three Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronauts.
The training began early Monday with an introduction and gear pick-up — standard camouflage clothing, two canteens, a bayonet, iodine tablets, a poncho with liner, a compass and a map. After wrapping these into a makeshift backpack made from a military issue coat, ”roughing it” and survival began.
The training has two purposes. The astronauts fly a minimum of 48 hours a year in T-38s to maintain aviation and navigation proficiency. The flights commonly take them over deserts and mountains. If they had to eject from the aircraft, they may have to fend for themselves for at least a few hours and possibly longer.
The training also provides a unique and challenging teambuilding environment. The class will spend the greater part of the next year together. When they are assigned to spaceflight crews, they will form other close-knit teams. With the varied backgrounds and philosophies pulled together in the class, learning leadership and teamwork skills when dealing with adversity is invaluable.
”This is the third astronaut candidate class to go to Maine for land survival training,” said Duane Ross, manager of astronaut candidate selection and training at the Johnson Space Center. ”Beyond the practical survival tactics they learn, this type of experience really helps the astronaut candidates bond together as a team.”
As the candidates headed out for the remote training site, they filled their canteens from streams and settled into shelters, called ”hooches” by their Navy trainers and made from wood frames and parachute fabric, for the first night. The trainees only had rain ponchos and liners to sleep on through the crisp 40-degree temperatures — no sleeping bags or air mattresses on this camping trip.
The days are filled with briefings and instruction from the trainers, a team of eight Naval specialists who guide the class. The philosophy is clear from the outset — ingenuity is the key to survival. To succeed, you must open your mind to new uses for the limited materials and equipment you have.
The simple poncho, seemingly unnecessary in the absence of rain, can serve as a shelter, water collector, sleeping bag and more. Parachute cord has many uses. The instructor points out hundreds of feet of cord within the chute, and then cuts one open, revealing six thinner strands inside. These can be pulled out and serve as anything from lashes for tying together your shelter to dental floss.
For three days, the instructors guide the group through survival medicine, signals, fire craft and navigation. The astronaut candidates are Ph.D.s, physicians, and other experts, but they are all awestruck when one of the instructors starts a fire with the most primitive of starting techniques using only rock and pieces of wood.
As they continue to train, they disperse in groups of three and four, scoping out sites and working with rationed materials to create a group shelter. By now, they can forage through the woods, recognizing and eating chosen plants. While they’ve been briefed on acceptable insects and wildlife they can eat, none chooses to try them. At this point, they still have the assistance of an instructor.
But not for the final exam. Instructors wake them at 5:20 a.m. to a startling rescue scenario. Two of their group are staged as ”injured.” The astronaut candidates have to figure out a plan and get them to a rescue pick up spot.
This is the pinnacle of their training. They are on their own, tired and hungry. The instructors only watch, gauging how the class responds to the crisis. They’ll have to take care of the wounded, tear down the shelters, gather all the gear, and transport it almost a quarter-mile through the dense woods to a rescue site.
Everybody got high marks. ”This has been an excellent group to work with,” said Chief Petty Officer Howard Carter, a Navy Survival Instructor. ”They are all very sharp individuals and they’ve picked up everything we’ve taught them.”
Worn and weary, the group shares a confident satisfaction in their experience. They know more about the wilderness, and, maybe more important, they know more about each other. After a few photos and last glances at the Maine sky, they prepare to return to Houston, where they will continue training for far greater adventures in exploration that lie ahead.