Back to school

Story Musgrave likened the initial orientation and academic training phase of the group to the first year of medical school: "It is an introduction to a new organization, a new discipline and a new career. The precise information which an astronaut must have or which will contribute to his effectiveness is, as in medicine, not precisely known, so that the education and training in the early phases is very broad in scope and narrows as a mission approaches. What is attained in this phase might be titled, 'the management, science, technology and hardware basic to manned flight.'"7

Musgrave and his ten new colleagues discovered the learning atmosphere to be both unusual and dynamic. They found themselves privileged to be lectured by international authorities, explaining their special fields to a handful of students who, as Musgrave states: ''have doctorates and have proven themselves in the lab; are uninhibited and urgently motivated, and are forever asking questions such as 'Why?' and 'How do you know?' As in surgical training programs, examinations are not needed. Everyone is aware of the progress that he and the others are making and, if motivation is needed, the launch pad can be looked upon as the final exam.''7

The seven astronauts (without hard hats) stand in front of a mighty Saturn F-1 engine while touring the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Areas covered during the initial orientation and academic training included an introduction to NASA, field trips and briefings on the three NASA centres dealing primarily with manned space flight, and detailed briefings and demonstrations of the functions of all the major divisions within the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Every day, all eleven men would be collected by the longest limousine they had ever seen and driven to specific buildings or facilities, where they would sit through a talk given by a division head, usually accompanied by a lengthy slide show to complement the oral presentation.

In addition to the grand tour of NASA's facilities, the men attended numerous lectures on space sciences, astronomy, planetology and physiology. The latter involved cardiovascular and pulmonary studies, human engineering, haematology, clinical pathology, neurology, vestibular investigations, vision, and a summary of physiological and medical observations on previous missions. In addition, there was bioscience - including biology, the origin of life, evolution, ecology and exobiology (a scientific study of life outside Earth), space flight dynamics, Earth resources, meteorology, computers, rocket propulsion, communications theory, summaries of past programmes, the Apollo Program, and post-Apollo plans. They also attended

Chapman enters the centrifuge for an evaluation of g-stresses on his body

Apollo spacecraft systems briefings, Saturn launch vehicle systems and operations briefings.

As with their more formal training, the eleven men were encouraged to hold individual conversations and group discussions with instructors, managers, other astronauts, scientists and engineers. This informal approach outside of the classroom or laboratory environment was greatly appreciated, and would contribute tremendously to the men's education and development.

According to Brian O'Leary, many of the lectures were quite stimulating and worthwhile, "but we paid for our fun in the form of the lectures on spacecraft systems. With a few exceptions, they were extraordinarily dull - duller even than the 'come-see-our-computer' tours. Towards the end of the course work on spacecraft systems, the jargon and block diagrams were getting so tiring that we would rotate so that only five of the Excess Eleven attended any one lecture. We figured that any less than that might get back to the bosses, and then we would be conscripted to compulsory attendance.''8

O'Leary was apparently coming to the realisation that this was not the easy ride to glory he'd imagined. He was rapidly falling behind those with better attitudes and more dedication, who possessed a ''big picture'' understanding of what was required of them. In a later book, he would offer a surprisingly frank insight into that period of his life:9

"I was a PhD and astronaut appointee on the ground floor of an exciting career in planetary science and astronautics. Soon, I felt myself to be somehow'special', and my ego had grown to a point of seeming invincibility. I felt rather as if I were a young, tenured Roman senator during the reign of Caligula or Nero, or perhaps the Catholic Church's most junior cardinal during the Inquisition. As such, I would have been one of the least likely to point out that the emperor has no clothes.''

As one highly critical scientist-astronaut later wrote about O'Leary: ''He was quite immature and unrealistic in his expectations as to what the tasks, duties and responsibilities of a scientist-astronaut would be, and must have 'hidden his cards' very well during the selection process. In my opinion, he should never have applied or been selected. I cringe every time the term 'scientist-astronaut', to which I have devoted most of my professional career, is used to describe this egotistical and very doubtful team player.''

In order to simulate accelerations associated with launch, launch abort, orbital reentry and lunar re-entry, several of the scientists would train on a centrifuge, more formally known as the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory, located at the Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville, Pennsylvania. However Bill Thornton, for one, does not recall being involved in this particular aspect of his astronaut training. The interior of the centrifuge's gondola could be configured to simulate a cockpit inside an actual spacecraft, and the engineers at the facility could install internal mock-ups of different spacecraft from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo series into the cab. These cabs sat on long arms attached to a giant motor, weighing 180 tons, which swung the cab around at the end of the arm at tremendous speeds, accelerating from zero to 180 miles per hour in just seven seconds, sufficient to exert 40 G on the occupant. While the scientists and their astronaut colleagues trained at speeds and pressures far less than this, they found that a force of just 2-3 G produced only slight limitations to their performance, while 9-10 G was enough to cause a total inability to move or talk, and only a limited ability to breathe. They would later train on another centrifuge gondola in the Flight Acceleration Facility in Building 29 at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

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