In this activity, you’ll learn about what it takes to become a NASA astronaut, which is especially timely since NASA just finished its latest astronaut recruitment campaign to find astronauts to send to the Moon in the Artemis Program! This activity will include information about physical and mental fitness, the rationale behind NASA’s astronaut testing, and the related physiological and psychological research.
Background - 10 minutes
Introductory video: #AskNASA: How Can I Be an Astronaut?
Discussion: What do astronauts do? What characteristics and experience do you need to be an astronaut?
Activity: Astronaut Training Program - 40 minutes
Working in enclosed environments (discussion/brainstorming)
Physical fitness test
Wrap-up - 10 minutes
How else can NASA test people for their ability to adapt to space?
How can we make the astronaut corps more inclusive?
The student will:
Learn what characteristics and experience NASA looks for in astronauts and why
Learn about physical and mental fitness and the related physiological and psychological research
Learn about how to become an astronaut from NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli. NASA is looking for new astronauts to join them for the Artemis Program, which aims to return humans to the Moon, including the first woman on the Moon.
Think about a day in the life of an astronaut. Once selected to join the NASA astronaut corps, new astronauts spend two years training as “astronaut candidates” at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. They have to prepare for long-duration missions to space, where they will perform spacewalks, conduct science experiments, and live with astronauts from other countries. What training, characteristics and experience would ensure their success? What do astronauts do? How can you prepare for zero gravity? (Hint: where else do people float?)
A space to do physical activity (push-ups, jumping jacks, or running)
A spinning chair (optional)
A rope (optional)
What is it like to work in a small, enclosed, isolated environment in space? The International Space Station is the size of a 5-bedroom house (the pressurized volume is about the size of a Boeing 747 airplane) and is shared by three to six people during six-month-long missions (source: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/facts-and-figures). While living in the station, astronauts can only go outside the space station to conduct necessary maintenance via spacewalks. For the duration of a mission — which can last months — the crew of 3-6 astronauts only see and interact with one another.
How is our current social distancing due to COVID-19 similar to and different from astronauts living in space?
Sketch your bedroom and your kitchen, then compare these to the bedrooms and eating area that astronauts have on the International Space Station.
Check out this speedy tour of the International Space Station:
Sleeping quarters on the International Space Station:
The galley, where astronauts eat on the International Space Station:
Every part of the International Space Station was carefully designed by NASA, Roscosmos (the Russian space agency), the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and their industry partners.
How could space station designs be improved?
Things to consider:
Lack of gravity (this means you have to be careful about floating particulates from food, but you can also create designs that would be impossible in gravity)
Balance between functionality and crew comfort
Launch costs: launching to low Earth orbit (LEEO) currently costs around $5,000/kg
(optional) For more information about the design of the International Space Station, you can read this infographic: https://www.space.com/3-international-space-station.html and/or this NASA report: https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/167120main_Elements.pdf
Space exploration researchers use the term “countermeasures” to describe “the procedures, medications, devices, and other strategies that help keep astronauts healthy and productive during space travel and return to Earth.” Countermeasures are used to address the risks to humans posed by spaceflight. Scientists spend a lot of time developing countermeasures to improve astronaut health. Now you can try developing your own countermeasure!
How do you think space affects both the bodies and minds of astronauts?
Make a list of risks to astronaut health (both their bodies and their minds) and share it on the forum!
There are entire fields of space research dedicated to understanding how space affects humans:
Space physiology focuses on how spaceflight affects the body. This includes how space affects vision, muscles, and bones.
Space psychology focuses on the mind: this includes how space affects mood, motivation, communication and interpersonal dynamics.
Isolated and confined environments (ICE) research focuses on how isolation and confinement affect humans (in space and in other environments, such as remote oil fields or Antarctica). This field overlaps with space psychology.
The space community spends a lot of time and money figuring out risks to human health in space. This work has identified the most important risks to address, both for physiology and for ICE/psychology:
(source: Beckers et al. “Space Physiology.” Wiley Encyclopedia of Biomedical Engineering, Beckers et al, 2006)
ICE categories of behavioral issues, in order of salience:
(source: Stuster et al. “The Relative Importance of Behavior Issues During Long-Duration ICE Missions.” Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 79 (9) 2000)
Think about ways to address these risks. Researchers use the term “countermeasures” to describe “the procedures, medications, devices, and other strategies that help keep astronauts healthy and productive during space travel and return to Earth.”
Develop your own countermeasure:
Pick a risk (or multiple risks) that you want to address.
How will you address that risk?
What equipment or training will be needed to perform your countermeasure?
Write this down!
Try out your countermeasure and make any changes needed.
Why do you think physical fitness is important for astronauts?
Test your muscle strength! Do 10 push-ups, or as many as you can try comfortably!
Why is muscle strength important for astronauts?
Test your muscle endurance! Do 10 minutes of cardio.
Ideas for cardio: running or jumping jacks
Why is muscle endurance important for astronauts?
You have probably done this before but may not know the name of this maneuver! To perform the Valsalva maneuver, close your month, pinch your nose closed, and attempt to blow the air out (start gently at first, make sure this feels ok). You should feel a popping in your ears!
This maneuver tests multiple things, including your cardiac (heart) function and your ability to equalize pressure in your ears.
Why are cardiac function and equalizing ear pressure important for astronauts? (Hint: when have you used the Valsalva maneuver before? When would astronauts want to use this maneuver because of a change in pressure?)
(optional) For more information about what it takes to become an astronaut, check out Astronaut Abby’s how-to guide: https://www.astronautabby.com/how-to-become-an-astronaut-2/
Astronauts must undergo a gravity-force (g-force) test to train for the high-g forces that occur during a space launch. During space launch, the force of the engines propel the rocket upward. Newton’s Third Law of Motion stipulates that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. What is the reaction force that balances out the forces of the engines?
Astronauts do high-g-force testing in a large piece of equipment called a centrifuge, like the one shown below:
Using the same principles of a centrifuge, set up your at-home g-force test!
Get a spinning chair and a partner
Sit in the chair
Hold one end of the rope to your stomach, and spin the chair slowly so that the rope wraps around you. Leave the other end of the rope free.
Have your partner pull on the free end of the rope so that you spin!
(If you don’t have a rope, your partner can spin you in the chair manually)
Now try to walk in a straight line. How do you feel? How did you feel during the g-force test
Why does spinning help simulate high gravity forces of space launch? (Hint: this is the same force you feel inside a car when it’s turning)
How else can NASA test people for their ability to adapt to space? Given what you’ve learned about the physical and mental challenges of spaceflight, what other tests can NASA do to determine if someone would make a good astronaut? Consider how this might be different for six-month missions to the International Space Station versus missions to the Moon in NASA’s Artemis Program (some will be shorter, but some may be even longer missions).
After NASA selects its new astronauts, how do you think they should train them for missions to the Moon? How can they be trained to improve their fitness for space travel?
How can we make the astronaut corps more inclusive? Two NASA astronauts recently wrote, “NASA’s mission is to answer humanity’s call to explore. If there is any part of humanity that’s not on that journey, we are not achieving our mission.”
At the beginning of NASA’s existence, all astronauts were men. Over time, the agency began to accept women into the astronaut corps, with the two most recent classes of astronauts being close to or at 50% women. These women have been pilots, scientists, and commanders in the astronaut corps, who received support from women in NASA leadership and Mission Control on the ground.
How can NASA continue expanding its astronaut corps to be more inclusive? Do you think there is anyone who is currently not being included in NASA’s journey to explore space? How can we involve these people?
(optional) Read more about the argument for including people with disabilities in the astronaut corps: https://www.wired.com/story/its-time-to-rethink-whos-best-suited-for-space-travel/
As part of MIT’s larger return to the moon, we’re running an online K-12 challenge, and encourage you to submit an entry! The challenge is to design a lunar habitat and submit your designs to our team by May 15, 2020. The winners of the challenge will be selected for a special prize! Details of the competition and how to enter can be found here.