Apollo Missions - Astronaut Selection and Training Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Apollo Missions - Astronaut Selection and Training

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Project Apollo: The Beginnings | Mission Planning | Landing Site Selection | Earthbound Support Systems
Astronaut Selection and Training | The Saturn V | The Saturn 1B | The Apollo Spacecraft
Guidance and Navigation | Command and Service Modules | The Lunar Module
Assembling and Launching | Pathfinders | The Early Missions | Apollo 11, The First Landing
The Intermediate Missions | Apollo 15 Exploration | Apollo 16 Exploration | Apollo 17 Exploration
Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz | Conclusion

Of NASA's first selection of seven Mercury astronauts, only three were available to continue with the Gemini and Apollo programs on completion of the Mercury program. Alan Shepherd and Donald Slayton were both removed from flight duties due to physical health problems, John Glenn resigned from NASA to take up a political career and Scott Carpenter resigned to carry out underwater research with the US Navy in Sealab. The remainder, Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Walter Schirra and Gordon Cooper, remained with the space program while NASA continued to select further batches of astronauts to provide flight crews that would be needed for the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Almost all of the astronauts chosen were from military backgrounds and initially, most were serving officers in the flying branches of the armed forces. To be eligible for selection, a candidate had to be between 25 and 35 years old, weigh no more than 180 pounds and be no taller than 5ft 11ins, hold a degree in engineering or physical science and have logged a minimum of 2,000 hours flying time in high performance jets with test pilot experience. The selection procedure winnowed out the best by physical and psychological tests. Qualifying candidates were subjected to a full medical examination. The selected astronauts were just your average super achievers.

A group of nine, sometimes referred to as the Gemini astronauts, were announced on 17 September, 1962. They were Neil A Armstrong, Major Frank Borman USAF, Lt Charles Conrad USN, Lt Commander James A Lovell Jr USN, Cpt James A McDivitt USAF, Elliot M See Jr, Cpt Thomas P Stafford USAF, Cpt Edward H White USAF and Lt Commander John W Young.

A third Apollo group of 14 astronauts was added to the astronaut corps on 14 October, 1963. Major Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin USAF, Cpt William A Anders USAF, Cpt Charles A Bassett USAF, Lt Alan L Bean USN, Lt Eugene A Cernan USN, Lt Roger B Chaffee USN, Cpt Michael Collins USAF, R Walter Cunningham, Cpt Donn F Eisele USAF, Cpt Theodore C Freeman USAF, Lt Commander Richard F Gordon Jr USN, Russell L Schweickart, Cpt David R Scott USAF and Cpt Clifton C Williams Jr USMC.

Despite budget cuts and the eventual cancellation of the last three Apollo flights, later selection boards took on another six groups of astronauts including candidates drawn from the scientific community from which ultimately only one, geologist Harrison 'Jack' Schmitt, was to set foot on the moon, on the final Apollo moon flight.

Crew Selection

Crew selection became the responsibility of Donald K 'Deke' Slayton, one of the Mercury astronaut group and the only one of the original seven not to fly a 'Mercury' mission. While in training to fly the fourth Mercury flight in Delta 7, medical tests revealed an intermittent irregular heart beat and he was removed from the active list. His place as the fourth American in space was taken by Scott Carpenter flying Sigma 7. Slayton was appointed head of the astronaut office and later in 1963, Assistant Director of Flight Crew Operations. He became one of the most significant figures in the manned space program, responsible for the astronaut's affairs and flight crew selection, although he never gave up the ambition to fly in space.

The crew selection procedure adopted by Slayton named a prime crew to fly a mission, a back-up crew to take its place if the need arose and a support crew to keep the prime and back-up crews abreast of developments outside their own sphere of interest, releasing them from mundane but necessary day-to-day affairs.

Slayton considered all astronauts to be equally capable of flying any mission, although each astronaut was assigned to specialise in different aspects of the flights which made some more suitable for certain missions. For example in the crew of Apollo 11, commander Neil Armstrong specialised in trainers and simulators, Buzz Aldrin specialised in mission planning and rendezvous techniques, and Mike Collins' speciality concerned pressure suits and Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA). A crew selected as back-up could expect to become the prime crew three flights later. Thus the crew that backed up Apollo 8, Armstrong, Aldrin and Haise, would ultimately be slated to become the prime crew for Apollo 111.

Crew Training

Each crew member assigned to a mission received specific training for his individual part of that mission. Crew members were assigned as Commander with responsibility for the overall conduct of the flight operations, Command Module Pilot for the Command Module systems, or Lunar Module Pilot for the Lunar Excursion Module systems. Despite the LEM pilot's title the commander actually piloted the lunar module into the final landing.

The majority of crew training was conducted in flight simulators to create as nearly as possible the procedures for the conduct of the mission. Separate simulators existed for the command module and for the lunar module and were located at the Mission Control Center at Houston, Texas and at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The simulators were controlled by computers into which any part of the projected flight could be programmed to recreate that portion of the mission. Faults in the modules' various systems could be introduced by the Capsule Simulator to simulate problems or emergencies that might forseeably arise. Testing the crew and flight controllers in this way enabled them to work out procedures to help them overcome problems if they occurred during the real event.

Research and Training Vehicles, LLRV and LLTV

Training on simulators was not a substitute for hands on experience. To provide real life simulation of a landing, Bell Aircraft constructed the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV). The LLRV and its successor, the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV), were wingless vertical take-off flying machines powered by a single downward facing jet engine that provided thrust to raise the machine to altitudes of up to 1,000 feet, where the engine could then be throttled back to sustain 5/6 of the machine's weight. The remaining 1/6 was supported by two throttleable rocket engines and the attitude of the machine was controlled by reaction control jets on outrigger frameworks, giving the whole craft the appearance of a flying bedstead. By controlling the rocket engine thrust and attitude with the reaction control jets, the astronaut could simulate the last few hundred feet of the powered descent to a landing in the same manner as the lunar module.

These machines were difficult to fly and required prior experience with helicopters to master the techniques. On different occasions both Neil Armstrong and NASA test pilot Joe Algranti were forced to eject at low level as their craft went out of control. The LLTV provided invaluable experience of the handling characteristics of a craft on which they were going to get only one chance at a landing attempt with the real hardware.

A further training facility built at the Langley Research Center in Maryland covered several acres of simulated lunar terrain and permitted practice of the final hundred feet of the descent without the inherent dangers of the LLTV. A mock-up of a lunar module with jet descent engine and control thrusters was suspended by wires within a giant rig. It was raised by the suspension wires and controlled by the astronaut through the engine thrust which permitted him to descend and select a spot and speed to set the craft down in the simulated lunar terrain below the rig.

Various aspects of the flight would have to be performed under low or zero gravity conditions. To simulate these conditions on a more personal level NASA built giant water immersion tanks to allow individual astronauts to practice various procedures under the best low gravity conditions that could be devised on Earth by carrying out practice of procedures under water. Other zero gravity simulations could be carried out in the 'Vomit Comet' which was a converted Air Force KC-135 cargo aeroplane with its passenger compartment interior stripped and padded. From high altitude the aircraft could be flown in a descending parabolic arc which allowed the occupants of the compartment to experience weightless conditions for periods of up to a minute. Another rig supporting astronauts in a harness (Pogo) which carried five sixths of his weight allowed simulation of walking on the lunar surface.

At the other end of the gravitational scale, astronauts were going to have to work under increased gravity conditions during certain parts of a flight, notably during launch and re-entry when up to 15g could be experienced. To accommodate this training a centrifuge was constructed at Houston where high positive g forces could be experienced by rotating the astronaut in a small cabin at speed on the end of a 50-foot long arm.

Astronaut Geology Training

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) also provided geology training for the astronauts through classroom instruction and field trips supervised by USGS geologists. Excursions to sites both within and outside the US borders included locations at Meteor and Sunset craters Arizona, Nuclear Test Site Nevada, New Mexico and the San Juan mountains of Colorado. As the training became more sophisticated, mission crews were spending an average of two days per month on field trips and receiving up to 80 hours classroom instruction.

1Mike Collins was originally on Borman's crew but lost his place due to a bone spur growth on his neck vertebrae which necessitated an operation. Collins bumped Haise from Armstrong's crew for Apollo 11 and Haise was eventually reallocated to Apollo 13.

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