NASA’s first astronauts were pushed to dangerous and deadly extremes while training for deep space exploration.
In the late 1950s, NASA looked to the military for its first astronauts. The idea was that since military test pilots were accustomed to flying advanced and powerful aircraft, their skills would provide the most useful transition. Out of over one hundred candidates plucked from the military, only seven were selected for NASA’s first manned space program, Project Mercury, and they had less than two years to go from military test pilots to astronauts. The first several months of training were spent in the classroom, learning about the science of spaceflight. Project Mercury had five other focus areas: vehicle operations, physical fitness, ground activities, maintenance of flight skills and space flight conditions.
Following Project Mercury, the Gemini and Apollo programs would require astronauts to function in zero gravity for up to two weeks and endure the harsh effects of space. NASA’s biomedical staff conducted a series of experiments that tested exposure to acceleration, radiation, 100-percent oxygen and microgravity. The astronauts were put on unusual sleep and diet regimens to test their bodies’ limitations. They had to learn how to do seemingly basic, but wildly inconvenient, tasks like going to the bathroom in a specially designed space bag. To prepare for spacewalks, the astronauts took part in weightlessness training inside an aircraft dubbed “the vomit comet”. NASA later added an elaborate underwater training, called neutral buoyancy, that required astronauts to master diving techniques as they worked on a submerged spacecraft mockup.
Outside of NASA’s facilities, the astronauts were sent to the Panamanian jungle and the Nevada desert for survival training. In the event their spacecraft landed in a remote part of the globe, the astronauts needed to be prepared to live off the land. Training for Apollo also required astronauts to broaden their scientific knowledge in order to conduct experiments on the lunar surface. Astronauts then travelled to Iceland, Hawaii and the Grand Canyon to learn how to recognize and catalog geologic features on the moon. To simulate these cosmic experiments, NASA even recreated a lunar landscape using dynamite and fertilizer bombs in a Northern Arizona field.
One of the most difficult scenarios to prepare for was the lunar landing itself. These pure fly-by-wire aircraft were created to emulate the flight specs of the Lunar Module. But these vehicles were risky and dangerous. During a training flight, Neil Armstrong lost control, ejecting right before the vehicle crashed. An unrattled Armstrong was spotted at his desk working about an hour after the crash as if it never happened. According to other astronauts, that’s just how he was. And that calm, collected nature is what made Neil Armstrong the perfect astronaut to pilot the Lunar Module during the first trip to the moon’s surface.