Requirements for astronaut selection the USAF approach

"The analysis of staffing requirements ... assumes that the space crewman will be an operator of the spacecraft and will be linked with its control system as a crucial part of a man-machine complex. If he were only a passive occupant of an automatically guided ballistic missile, perhaps as a collector of scientific data, the problem would be somewhat different. However, the difference would be primarily one of emphasis, with the same general framework of reference. In either case it must be assumed that the occupant has been placed on board to permit necessary and useful functions. It seems unlikely that men will be sent aloft in ballistic missiles merely as subjects for physiological and psychological experiments in which animals might be used just as well." So wrote Dr. Saul B. Sells and Major Charles A. Berry (who later became head of medical operations at the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston) in the 1959 book Man in Space (by Kenneth Gants, published by Duell, Sloan and Pearce). The book was a collection of contemporary papers detailing the USAF programme for developing a profile for a spacecraft crew. They quoted6 detailed proposals for the selection and training of "space pilots" in aptitude and skill requirements; biological, medical and physical requirements; and specific tolerances of anticipated physiological stresses.

Refinements by Sells and Berry a couple of years later supported this view and added that the selection of candidates with "appropriate background and experience may substantially reduce the training and indoctrination program." Thinking along the lines of a pilot flying the vehicle, in the mode of the X-15 or X-20 rather than a ballistic flight where an experimenter performed or gathered science data, the candidates, in the view of Sells and Berry, had to be able to perform a range of functions with alertness, speed and accuracy. Such functions included piloting a high performance ultrasonic aircraft through the atmosphere during boost, controlling it in orbit and re-entry glide, and guiding it to a landing. They would also be responsible for obtaining and interpreting information concerning vehicle operations, cabin-environment conditioning, personnel function and external conditions. Further, the candidates would need to be capable of making rapid and accurate compensations and decisions, anticipating difficulties by advance planning and action, and checking, testing, observing and reporting data concerning the spacecraft, its personnel and the environment.

The authors reasoned that such functions would require personnel with special skills, particularly proficiency and experience as a pilot of high-speed, high-performance jet and rocket aircraft. This would be combined with detailed engineering understanding of the operation and maintenance of power plants and the control and environmental conditioning equipment of the spacecraft, as well as medical and physiological training in human performance and function (with a particular emphasis on survival and efficiency in the spacecraft). Candidates would also require detailed understanding of the operation and maintenance of all communication and (interestingly) all scientific observational equipment, together with a specific understanding of the navigational and astronomical aspects of the mission plan.

The authors concluded: "It would be uneconomical to consider any personnel for (the space) program that are not already highly experienced in high-performance jet or rocket aircraft. Test pilots frequently have, in addition, engineering and scientific training and interest. A requirement for proficiency in high-performance flight and in the engineering, physiological, communication, scientific and navigational skills needed would narrow the selection problem greatly." The article also pointed out that altitude flying necessitates aptitude and performance tests in both physiological training and cabin protection systems, including dealing with life support systems, inflight emergencies and escape scenarios. Furthermore, assessments of flying proficiency, as well as flying records, would be readily available for military test pilots.

This paper focused on the potential for USAF pilots flying X-20-type vehicles into space in the 1960s. Though such a programme was envisaged and a team of test pilots selected, no such flights took place, but these evaluations did have an influence on the selection of the first NASA astronaut candidates between 1959 and 1966.

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