Who wants to be an Astronaut?
Astronauts is a term that means "sailors of the stars". Until the beginning of the space age in the mid-20th century the word belonged to the realm of science fiction. However, with the launching of the first artificial satellite in 1957 and the initiation of serious government projects to send men beyond the earth's atmosphere, a whole new space-age terminology was required. The word "astronaut" was adopted by the United States about 1959, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began to select and train pilots for its space projects. In the USSR the comparable term is cosmonaut, or "sailor of the universe."
Astronaut's wings are awarded to the NASA space pilots who have flown suborbital and orbital missions. In addition, the U. S. Department of Defense awards the rating of pilot-astronaut to military pilots who fly higher than 50 miles (80 km). Thus Air Force pilots Robert M. White and Robert A. Rushworth, who flew the X-15 experimental rocket-powered plane higher than 50 miles, are pilot-astronauts. Joseph A. Walker (killed in 1966 in an air accident) did not receive this rating, although he reached a height of 67 miles (107.9 km) in the X-15, because he was not a military pilot.
The first seven astronauts selected in 1959 for Project Mercury had to have an academic degree or equivalent experience in engineering or in a physical or biological science. They had to be graduates of a military test-pilot school and to have a minimum of 1,500 hours flying time. Because of the small size of the Mercury capsule, they could be no more than 5 feet 11 inches (180 cm) tall. The age limit was 40 years. One member of this group, Donald K. Slaton, was later barred from space flights when a slight irregularity was detected in his heartbeat, but he remained in the U.S. program.
Five more groups of trainees were selected thereafter for the Gemini and Apollo programs. Some of the criteria were revised. Thus the nine men chosen in 1962 could be 6 feet (183 cm) tall but not more than 35 years old, and civilian test-pilot experience was acceptable. In the third group of 14 men, selected in 1963, six were not test pilots, and several had advanced academic degrees. Four men of these early groups of astronauts were later killed in airplane accidents, and three died while testing a spacecraft at its launch facility. The six men selected in 1965 were called scientist-astronauts, because they were primarily scientists and only secondarily pilots. Nineteen more men were named in 1966 and 11 in 1967.
The first Russian cosmonauts were experienced jet pilots, but some of the later Soviet missions were carried out by men without a military or piloting background. The Russians also differed from the Americans in selecting a woman to make a space flight. Six women had applied for the U. S. program but were rejected.
The first Astronauts and Cosmonauts
The first man to fly in space was the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who flew one earth orbit on April 12, 1961. The first American astronauts in space were Alan Shepard, Jr., who made a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, and John Glenn, Jr., who flew three earth orbits on Feb. 20, 1962.
The first astronauts to land on the moon (July 20, 1969) were Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, Jr.
An astronaut has to be prepared for the emergencies that may arise during his mission and must be psychologically stable in order to cope with them under the unfamiliar and dangerous conditions of space. His training must prepare him to endure the stress of extended periods of extreme confinement and the disorientation and physical discomfort resulting from weightlessness.
Astronauts are trained intensively to familiarize them with the power, control, communications, and life-support systems they use in their missions. Their studies include aerodynamics, physiology, astronomy, basic mechanics, space navigation and communications, and computer theory.
A good deal of actual training involves the simulation of space-flight conditions and activities. Full-scale models are located at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and several other installations. There the astronauts familiarize themselves with spacecraft layout, and they carry out simulated docking and lunar-landing maneuvers. They are also placed in simulated emergency situations.
High-gravity conditions experienced at liftoff and reentry are simulated by large centrifuges, while weightlessness is simulated to some degree by suspension devices, underwater work, and certain aircraft maneuvers.