NASA engineers get survival training from SERE instructors

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- What do NASA engineers and SERE instructors with the 66th Training Squadron here have to do with each other?

NASA needed support for critical tests for the "Return to Flight" mission in the effort to get the space program back on track after the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia Feb. 1, 2003. In an effort to design human support elements for the current and future space programs, NASA engineers needed to get a little hands-on experience in survival techniques.

"We were in a very dire need of assistance," said Ketan Chhipwadia, NASA manager for shuttle survival and crew equipment.

NASA got in touch the 66th Training Squadron Detachment 2 at NAS Pensacola, Fla. and arranged for some collaborative efforts between the two organizations.

The team's contact at Pensacola recommended performing the training at the headquarters for the Air Force SERE training, at the U.S. Air Force Survival School at Fairchild, said Mr. Chhipwadia.

The team, which is from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, arrived Jan. 7 at Fairchild for a week of training.

With the space program redirecting its efforts from the Space Shuttle back to a capsule-based vehicle, the astronauts returning from missions may have to survive outside the capsule for several hours on land or at sea before the recovery teams can collect them.

This is where the training with the survival schools comes into play. Whether it is an astronaut or an Airman, they may encounter the same challenges and obstacles while waiting for rescue.
"Survival is near and dear to our heart- and guess what, survival is near and dear to your [the Air Force] heart," said Mr. Chhipwadia. For land survival "there are a lot of common threads," he said.

Two of the objectives for the team's visit to Fairchild are to build a relationship with the Air Force and capture knowledge of how the Air Force trains its Airmen. This visit allows the two organizations to build a rapport for future projects.

The nation needs to go to the moon and Mars with NASA and the Department of Defense as a team, said Mr. Chhipwadia.

This cooperative effort not only allows the engineering team to get insight into what types of situations to prepare for, but it also invites cooperation between the agencies. It gives the NASA team an opportunity to understand what the DoD does with these training scenarios, to take that information back to NASA.

This insight will not only affect suit design for the remaining Shuttle missions, but also for the next generation of space travel in the Constellation system.

According to NASA's Web site, the Constellation system is comprised of a crew vehicle, Orion, and a launch vehicle, Ares. The expected timeline is to have the first missions to the space station in 2014 and to the moon by 2020. The Constellation system uses a capsule-style craft, which gets its roots from the Apollo program.

While training here, the NASA team piggybacked with an existing class and attended sessions including water survival, winter and land survival and spent some time in the "dunker," which simulates a water landing and submersion.

The team hosted a presentation to the base to outline what they were responsible for Jan. 9. The briefing included a couple of videos a slideshow with commentary by some of the members and a live demonstration with Tech. Sgt. Matthew Sidel, 66th Training Squadron standards and evaluation NCOIC, donning a space crew landing suit in front of the audience. The audience was then invited up to touch and talk to the team about the suit and its parts.

The engineers are taking the survival training to help them think about the situations astronauts might encounter. The engineers test as many aspects of the mission as possible prior to launch. It's their job to troubleshoot equipment so the astronauts are not exposed to undue risks during the mission.

"Before we give the astronauts anything, whether it be food, water or equipment, we never make them go through it first," said Mr. Chhipwadia. "We work out the bugs."

The engineer's experiences last week will likely show up in some of the design elements in the next spacecraft. Such things as large buttons that can be operated while wearing gloves or seats with easy egress access in the event the crew needs to quickly evacuate the capsule will probably be taken into account.

The team is hoping to attend an Air Force water survival training course at Pensacola sometime this summer.