British astronaut at the European Space Agency (ESA),Tim Peake, explains what his job involves.
Where do you work and what is your job?
My official job title astronaut. However, since I have not yet flown into space it’s a cool sounding job title that I consider I have still yet to earn! Like all other European astronauts, our home base is in Germany. This is where the European Space Agency trains, manages and supports their astronauts. However, most astronauts spend relatively little time there, due to the nature of the job which requires extensive training in the USA, Russia, Japan and Canada.
What does your job involve?
An astronaut needs to be a jack of all trades and that involves one thing in abundance…training – several years’ worth in fact. Most astronauts today are training for a 6-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS). This requires an intimate knowledge and understanding of several space vehicles.
The main purpose of the ISS is to conduct scientific research and this also forms a large part of the training. Whilst astronauts do not need to become experts in every experiment, they do need to have a good understanding of the science involved and to proficiently operate the individual laboratory modules and equipment on board the ISS. Coupled with this is the ability to maintain the ISS in an operational state, which can require tasks such as fixing the plumbing on the toilet to performing a spacewalk to repairing a damaged solar array. Of course, astronauts are only a very small part of the huge international team that works 24/7 to support the ISS – and so astronauts need to be good at teamwork and communication also.
Are there any other interesting aspects to your work?
Some of the things that fascinated me during basic training were lessons such as advanced first aid and information technology. Astronauts must be capable of troubleshooting much of the technical equipment on board the ISS, which may involve tasks such as repairing computer networks and stripping down and replacing many electrical components. Also, there are always experiments involving human physiology which require a knowledge of skills such as performing ultrasound, and regular blood draws. Astronauts actually spend about a week training in hospitals, observing routine operations and emergency room procedures in order to complement their first aid training in the event that these skills are required on board the ISS.
What do you do in a typical day?
There is no such thing as a typical day! Training occurs in ‘blocks’, so for example you may travel to Star City near Moscow where you will spend four weeks learning about the spacecraft – and then to Houston for a few weeks training on the Space Station systems and then to Japan for a couple of weeks to learn how to operate the laboratory. This type of cycle continues for about two and a half years once assigned to a mission until launch.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
The prospect of travelling into space in the near future provides a constant source of excitement! However, so does having the privilege of meeting so many experienced people in the space industry, from flown astronauts, instructors and flight controllers to engineers and technicians. Everyone I work with is highly motivated and focussed on a common goal, which creates a very positive work environment.
Why is what you do important?
Space provides us with an extremely important environment where we can perform experiments and learn new things. Living and working in space is not easy – far from it. Space is an incredibly harsh environment that forces us to overcome many challenges by innovation, experimentation and pushing the boundaries of what we consider possible. By doing this we will further our collective knowledge and be able to use this for the benefit and betterment of everyone back on Earth.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in space?
Find out what it is that really inspires and excites you and follow this path. This will no doubt also be the subject that you are best at! For me, it was an early passion for aviation that led to a career as a military pilot, prior to becoming a test pilot and gaining a degree in flight dynamics later in life. Often experience and knowledge gained in one sector of industry will also be extremely valuable in another – so do not be afraid to keep all options open and explore opportunities when they arise.
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Mission X Train Like An Astronaut is a free educational programme developed by NASA scientists and fitness professionals. Schools from the UK are invited to take part in the Mission X international challenge which runs from January to March 2014. Register by 1 December 2013.
Images courtesy of the ESA.