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NASA astronauts training in water survival at Fairchild

NASA team members Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and Sunni Williams speak to elementary school students on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, at Hallett Elementary School in Medical Lake, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
NASA team members Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and Sunni Williams speak to elementary school students on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, at Hallett Elementary School in Medical Lake, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Four NASA astronauts who hope to travel to the International Space Station next year aboard “private space taxis” are in water-survival training at Fairchild Air Force Base.

One of the four, Col. Bob Behnken, USAF (ret.), a former test pilot, compared what the astronauts are doing now to the early days of the U.S. space program in the 1960s.

America ended its 30-year space shuttle program in 2011, and since then American astronauts have used Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the space station.

But “in recent years, observers have … expressed concerns about relying on a foreign government to send Americans to the space station, especially when political disputes occurred between Russia and the United States,” according to Space.com.

The four astronauts are training to fly on the Boeing Starliner capsule and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Which capsule the astronauts will be assigned to is not yet known, Behnken said.

NASA is contracting with SpaceX and Boeing to ferry astronauts to the space station in what’s called the “commercial crew transport program.”

The first crewed test flights are planned for May 2018.

“We haven’t had a day like this since the ’60s,” Behnken said Wednesday. “We haven’t built any new ships.”

The four astronauts spoke to more than 500 schoolchildren Wednesday in Medical Lake.

Besides Behnken, they are: Col. Eric Boe USAF (ret.); Col. Doug Hurley USMC (ret.); and Capt. Sunni Williams USN (ret.).

All four are space veterans, and all were experimental test pilots prior to joining NASA.

Behnken said the crew is training at Fairchild in case they crash into the ocean on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Training will include deploying and boarding a life raft, among other things.

“If something went wrong, you could potentially end up in the water,” he said. “So we’re here at Fairchild to get some refresher training on water survival.”

The two spacecraft, designed by Boeing and SpaceX respectively, are still in the testing phases.

As test pilots, the astronauts give feedback about what works, and what doesn’t work. Essentially they are designing the training manual for future space missions, Behnken said.

“Particularly since we’re in the design phase, if there is something we can change to make it better, now is the chance to do it,” he said.

One example of that influence is what is or is not automated in the spacecraft.

“That’s one of the things I think we are going to really face going forward with these spacecraft because there is a really strong desire to automate things,” Behnken said.

For certain situations, he believes it’s better if the crew is in charge, or at least has the option of taking manual control.

The four spoke to the Hallett Elementary students for about an hour, fielding questions about what it’s like to be weightless, astronaut food and whether Pluto is still a planet.

It’s not.

Hallett Elementary School Principal Cindy McSmith said the visit shows children a potential career path and is part of the school’s effort to push secondary education.

“It’s a fabulous opportunity for our kids to see some of the opportunities that lay ahead of them,” she said.

And although the four astronauts are certainly the most visible ambassadors for the space program, Boe emphasized they are only one part of the effort.

“There are a lot of other people making this happen,” he said.

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