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Theoretically I could be an astronaut

Theoretically I could be an astronaut

​When astronauts are assigned to a flight in two years’ time, their training begins. At this moment, a schedule needs to be already in place. An entire workforce of instructors is waiting for the training to begin. They already know what the astronauts need to know in two years. Theoretically.

Our colleague, Frank Salmen, who works at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, works closely with astronauts and develops their training for particular experiments and payloads. “I work on Columbus Payload Training and am Prime Instructor for the European Physiology Modules (EPM). This means that I developed the training for this module and I am certified to both give training and train other instructors. For example, I have been trained by another instructor for the Biolab Module and am a certified Backup instructor.”Astronaut_Salmen_2014 03.jpg

Is it all about certification?

If you think about the tight time schedule that astronauts have on board the ISS you might wonder who puts the schedule together. How do you know how long an experiment will take, so that they manage within time? Has anyone tested the procedure before and how many attempts do you have before you need to proceed to the next experiment? Scientists and industry spend a lot of time and effort to get their experiment to the ISS – of course you need to make sure that the astronaut is properly trained and that the instructor knows what he is talking about – that he is certified.

Understanding the experiment

“In order to train someone, you need to understand the matter yourself first”, tells us Frank. “And you need to downsize the amount of information that the astronaut really needs to know. We have one or two hours of training scheduled per experiment. Since the astronauts commute between Russia, USA, Japan, Canada and Europe, within their two years training period, they spend roughly five weeks in Cologne at the EAC – five single weeks spread over two years.”

These weeks need to be used most efficiently for the astronauts. This is why Frank undertakes all necessary efforts to understand the experiments. He reads the formal procedures written by the User Support & Operation Center (USOC) -Teams, learns them and tries them out in an internal dry run with other instructors. He talks to the hardware and software providers which are often distributed throughout Europe and across various institutions or universities.

“You cannot expect the astronaut to do this all alone. In order to convert all this information into a lesson for one experiment, I need roughly four months,” explains Frank. “And since I do not teach all details, I am probably better prepared for some experiments than the astronauts. Theoretically I could be an astronaut.”Astronaut_Salmen_2014 01.jpg

A test to pass for the instructor

In order to qualify to teach an experiment, Frank needs to prepare the lesson like a teacher. He defines what the performance objectives for the crew members are: Is it more about knowledge or rather about hands-on experience? How do you measure that the astronaut understood everything? Only once all objectives, training material, for example a presentation and a schedule for the practical experience are prepared, he is ready for the official dry run.

“This is actually quite an official event. There are training leads from ESA attending, one crew member, people from the User Support Centres that are in charge of managing the experiments and other instructors. I have to perform the lesson in front of them and only if they give me thumbs up, I get the certification to teach this particular lesson and train other instructors.”

Per year, Frank teaches around 20 different lessons within the payload module and every year he develops roughly four to five new ones. Astronaut_Salmen_2014 02.jpg

Keeping the overview

With so many people involved in one lesson preparation, what comes in quite handy is a planning tool to get an overview on the training activities: The Astronaut Training Database, developed by Telespazio VEGA Deutschland, combines all information regarding performance objectives, schedules, instructional needs, rooms and racks needed and even who needs to attend when, for example for the internal and official dry run.

“Of course there are always details that I will not know or that I didn’t think about”, adds Frank. Every astronaut has different questions, depending on the background. “Pilots have different questions than scientists or engineers. And of course there is always the bigger picture. For example, Alexander Gerst, who is flying to the ISS in May, always questions what the benefit of this or that experiment is for Planet Earth, in line with his mission Blue Dot. That’s maybe why Alexander is the astronaut and not me: He sees things more practically.”

Additional links

Alexander Gerst BlogEuropean Astronaut Centre Blue Dot mission 

Telespazio VEGA Deutschland in CologneTraining Systems

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Telespazio Vega Deutschland GmbH