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Astronaut trainee looks forward to spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Jan 27, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—Three years ago, Canadian Space Agency officials plucked Jeremy Hansen and one other person, David Saint-Jacques, to be astronaut trainees from more than 5,000 applicants.

The pair completed basic training and were swiftly assigned to their first duties, which included supporting colleague Chris Hadfield during his flight to the International Space Station. (Hansen accompanied Hadfield's family during the launch, among other duties.)

But for the most part, the trainees toil in training quietly. Spaceflight will be years away for the pair, if and when they are selected to go.

But Hansen, a Canadian Air Force pilot who celebrates his 37th birthday today (January 27), said he knew what he was signing up for.

"We had some good advice given to us during the application process," he told Sen during a call from the NASA astronaut office in Houston, Texas.

"Make sure you take from this job everything other than flying in space. Less than 1% of your career is spent flying in space. You need to be happy living with the other things."

Simulated spacewalks

So how does one pass the time? According to Hansen, the training never stops. Often, NASA tries to combine the astronaut candidates' work with ongoing spaceflight projects to be as efficient as possible.

Hansen's major project for 2013 is doing six spacewalk simulations in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. At the facility, astronauts dive fully suited into a large pool to simulate repairs and maintenance on a full size model of several International Space Station modules.

His goal is to develop contingency procedures to repair a nitrogen tank on the outside of the ISS, anticipating it will one day fail. The tanks are used aboard the station to pressurize an ammonia cooling system. If any of the tanks fail, it could cause overheating problems on the station.

"We look at the things we anticipate could go wrong, and when it does happen, [we formulate] the 90% solution to send to the astronauts," Hansen said.

"A lot of effort will go into those six runs. It's great experience for me."

Meanwhile, colleague Saint-Jacques is performing duties on the robotic side of the space station. Canada has an established expertise in the field. It has robotic arms on the station as well as a robotic hand, called Dextre.

These tools were of great assistance during the station's construction, but these days they are used more for ongoing maintenance tasks. Occasionally, the robotic Canadarm2 arm will grapple a spaceship as it approaches the International Space Station. SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is a prominent example of that.

'The things that are going to kill you in space'

With years of training to perform, it would be easy to forget the essential tasks or principles. Astronauts need to learn Russian, understand how the station works, and perform science experiments.

"You have to find ways to help yourself recall this information when needed," Hansen said.

"I've taken some of those tricks from Chris [Hadfield], developing some – he calls it – one pagers, if you will. I adopted that term as well. [I record] the things that are going to kill you in space or the mistakes that will be costly."

Hansen picks up a lot of that information through frequent meetings about the station. He spent the past year attending meetings on behalf of Hadfield's crew, who were frequently in Russia doing their own preparations for Hadfield's current mission aboard the space station.

"The meetings basically cover all aspects of life in space, on the space station ... we talk about it from A to Z," Hansen said. One important aspect is putting together a weekly schedule for the crew. The work is vaguely sketched out months in advance, then put together in more detail three weeks beforehand.

Additionally, the meetings review aspects such as upcoming space vehicle launches and ongoing maintenance issues. In Hadfield's month in space, Hansen said it has been business as usual, with no major issues to report yet.

"The increment is going spectacularly, but there are lot of things that are being constantly managed. We don’t have as much time and people on station to get these things done as we'd like," he said.

Both Hansen and Saint-Jacques also serve as "capcoms", or communicators with the astronauts on station. Hansen said he's looking forward to the day when he goes up there himself. And when the time comes, he will remember the network of Earth-bound people working to support him.

"It takes an enormous team to make space exploration happen," he said, adding that until you're actually doing the work, it's hard to "get an appreciation for how large that team is and how minuscule the details are."