A day in the life of an astronaut in training sounds pretty wild

9 May 2018

The Project PoSSUM trainer spacecraft. Image: Dr Norah Patten

Dr Norah Patten could be Ireland’s first astronaut. Here, she gives us an insight into what training is needed to get there.

What does it take realise a childhood dream? Hard work? Persistence? Good luck? All of the above?

Almost 25 years ago, at the impressionable age of 11, I visited NASA in Cleveland, Ohio, on a family holiday.

Future Human

Since then, I set my sights on space and have never looked back. I decided to study aeronautical engineering at the University of Limerick and later became a faculty member at the International Space University.

But I was missing the hands-on element if I ever wanted to realise my childhood dream.

Project PoSSUM

Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) is the first and only crewed suborbital research programme, and is designed to teach candidates the skills required to effectively conduct research on the next generation of space vehicles.

In 2017, I was selected as a scientist-astronaut candidate with PoSSUM, taking me one step closer to achieving my ultimate goal in life.

The first part of the programme took place in Embry-Riddle, Florida, last October and it consisted of high G-force training in an acrobatic aircraft. This included spacesuit training using a Final Frontier Design (FFD) spacesuit and hypoxia training, as well as learning theory in the classroom.

During that programme, we simulated the G-forces that are experienced during a sub-orbital launch so we would know what that feels like on our body.

We wore the spacesuit pressurised inside a flight simulator in order to understand how difficult it is to move and work, taking measurements and carrying out scientific research.

The realities of hypoxia

The hypoxia training focused on slow onset hypoxia where the altitude in the chamber was increased to 22,000ft in approximately 10 minutes.

The symptoms of hypoxia range from light-headedness and sweating, to nausea and numbness in fingers and toes. My symptoms included light-headedness, slowing down and numbness in my face. At that stage, I was instructed to don my oxygen mask.

I continued my progress with PoSSUM last month, having just recently returned from Connecticut where we completed the advanced spacecraft egress testing and sea survival skills training.

We worked with some incredible people at Survival Systems USA where we completed ‘dunker’ training, which involves learning how to egress – or get out of – a submerged helicopter cabin.

The dunker simulates a helicopter cabin, with the seats and exits representative of that.

Norah in spacesuit

Dr Norah Patten in her training spacesuit. Image: Norah Patten

‘My hands were shaking with nerves’

The training taught us the importance of knowing and implementing procedures, and the importance of staying calm – particularly when time is of the essence.

My hands were shaking with nerves while I prepared myself for my first dunker drill. I was strapped into the seat with a five-point harness, having been briefed and prepared as much as was possible in advance.

Then, ‘ditching, ditching, ditching’ announced over the speakers and I knew this was it. The water started to fill the cabin; I could feel it moving up my legs and then my torso.

It was time to take a deep breath and put our preparation into practice. My sinuses filled with water and once the rush of water calmed just a fraction, I started my egress as quickly as possible.

Norah with other members of the Project PoSSUM crew in the water

Dr Norah Patten with members of the Project PoSSUM research programme. Image: Norah Patten

Pushed to the limit

The most important thing was our reference point, because the main sense you rely on in this situation is touch.

I grabbed hold of my reference point, which was the window to my left, and then turned the release on the harness, shaking myself free. From there, I pulled myself out through the window and swam to the surface, relieved to have completed my first dunker.

We completed six scenarios in total, which included lights out in the dark, blocked exits (whereby we had to make our way across the cabin to another exit) and egress with compressed air.

We knew we had pushed ourselves and our limits once again. We also completed sea survival training where we took a boat out off the coast of Connecticut and, wearing our immersion suits, entered the 3C water to practice hypothermia mitigation techniques and life-raft ingress.

Flying the Irish flag

During the next phase, we used a mock-up of the NASA Orion spacecraft – the latest NASA-manned space capsule – to simulate off-nominal landings requiring an emergency spacecraft egress, while wearing the FFD spacesuit.

We practised the procedures in advance by lowering the hatch, securing the ladder, securing the thermal blanket and descent rope, inflating our life preserver unit, and securing ourselves to the rope before descent. We then completed the egress drill over the 13ft-deep pool at Survival Systems.

Participating in PoSSUM has reinforced my eagerness to really make this happen. It brought home to me how important it will be to have an Irish citizen with an Irish flag up there in space inspiring generations to come. When my opportunity comes, I will be ready!

By Dr Norah Patten

Dr Norah Patten is a faculty member at the International Space University as well as a scientist-astronaut with Project PoSSUM. You can follow her progress on Twitter and Facebook.  

Editor’s note: Since writing this post, Patten was confirmed as a crew member on a two-week lunar analogue mission at Lunares taking place this July.