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Dr. Edgar Mitchell was a pilot with the historic 1971 Apollo 14 mission and the sixth man to ever walk on the moon. He is also the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and three NASA Group Achievement Awards. Dr. Mitchell was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, and is the founder of the renowned Institute of Noetic Sciences. He lives in Lake Worth, Florida.
In an excerpt from “Earthrise: My Adventures as an Apollo 14 Astronaut,” Mitchell shares the training that went into preparing astronauts for their mission.
After so many years of hard work I had finally landed at NASA, and it felt great to be part of the Apollo team. In 1966 I was chosen along with 18 other men to participate in NASA’s Group 5 astronaut training. We were all test pilots and we all had college degrees.
Every day at the Manned Spacecraft Center there was a tremendous feeling that all our work was going to make history. And it certainly did. I also felt that going to the moon was a big step in the advancement of our species, and I was honored to be a part of it.
After arriving in Houston I immediately started ground school. All of the Group 5 astronauts took refresher courses in math and physics and learned about subjects such as space science, astronomy, geology, orbital mechanics, computer science, space flight, and the medical aspects of space flight.We also learned about complex spacecraft equipment such as propulsion control systems and fuel cells, and we took courses in how to observe and photograph phenomena in space.
It took a great deal of study and preparation to fly 240,000 miles to the moon and then 240,000 back home again. For each mission the Apollo teams rehearsed for many months.
As astronauts in training, we practiced indoors, outdoors, on land, underwater, in the air, and, of course, in the many different devices that simulated the spacecraft we would eventually fly one day. We were launched, dropped, spun, and dunked in a variety of unique conditions. We did all of this ahead of time so we could experience the many sensations, noises, and vibrations of space flight as well figure out how it would feel to work in the weightlessness of space and the reduced gravity of the moon.
Figuring out how to be prepared and survive in different environments was something I learned when I was a Boy Scout growing up in New Mexico. It’s interesting to note that of the 12 men who walked on the moon, 11 were Boy Scouts. And now I was learning all sorts of new survival skills in preparation for my journey to the moon. The astronauts had to be fully prepared for so many different tasks. We also needed to know how to calmly handle any kind of problem or crisis we might encounter in space. None of this was taken lightly. It was serious stuff.
A big part of our training was to figure out what it was going to be like to walk and work on the moon once we got there. And the best way to learn about this unusual lunar environment was to travel to places around the world that were barren like the moon and that also had craters.
NASA arranged for us to have geology field trips (GFTs) all over the world, and I was amazed to learn about the many unusual moon-like worlds right here on our planet. From Texas to Iceland, we traveled to enormous craters, barren deserts, canyons, caverns, and areas with volcanic eruptions. On our many GFTs we collected, measured, inspected, documented, and photographed all sorts of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. We were learning a lot about many different kinds of rocks so we could be the “eyes and ears” of geologists when we were on the moon collecting moon rocks.
We worked for many months in the field and essentially earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in geology in field training. This was a whole new area of study in my life, and I thought it was incredibly intriguing and helpful.
In addition to managing to work and survive in extraterrestrial places, we needed to be able to travel in our high-powered, rocket-based spacecraft. Our bodies needed to be able to withstand unusual g-forces, as with the liftoff of our rocket, or with zero gravity (zero g), which is the reduced gravity of being in space.
To experience the weightlessness of zero g, we either flew in high-speed aircraft or we went underwater. And to experience more than one g (increased gravity), as with liftoff, we’d spin incredibly fast in a centrifuge.
During what’s called parabolic training, the astronauts had the opportunity to feel short periods of weightlessness. We were able to do this in what we liked to refer to as the Vomit Comet because some of the guys would feel nauseous and toss their cookies, so to speak. We’d climb aboard a KC-135 aircraft that would shoot us up high in a steep trajectory and then descend rapidly in a free fall so we’d have about 20 to 60 seconds of zero g weightlessness, allowing us to float around the padded cabin. We practiced different maneuvers in the Vomit Comet wearing our space suits.
We also traveled to the naval base in Warminster, Pennsylvania, for training in the Johnsville centrifuge. We’d reluctantly climb in a steel orb called the Gondola, which was about 10 feet in diameter and suspended at the end of a long metal arm. Once we were buckled in, the device would spin us around and around at a g-force that would simulate rocket liftoff and reentry into the atmosphere. Nobody liked getting into this bizarre device that some of us nicknamed the “wheel,” the “torture chamber,” or the “gruesome merry-go-round.” But it gave us valuable information about how our bodies responded to movement, spinning, and the feeling of a heavy weight pressing against the body as happens during liftoff.
It wasn’t a sure thing that our Command Module would be able to plummet from space and soar perfectly through earth’s searing atmosphere to splash down at a specific location in the ocean. That was the plan, but in the event our capsule didn’t hit its watery target, or that it needed to return to earth quickly, we had to be prepared to survive in a variety of remote, hostile environments like the jungle or the desert. So, another important aspect of our work was survival training.
In June 1967, I was part of a small group of astronauts who spent four days in the Panama Jungle Survival School, near the Panama Canal. We first went to a classroom in the jungle where we learned survival basics such as how to build a simple shelter, how to find and prepare food and water, and how to hike and navigate through the dense, rugged rain forest. Part of our classroom lessons included being treated to a “jungle buffet” consisting of foods such as boa, fried rat, iguana, hearts of palm, and taro root. This training was helpful in teaching us how to cope and adapt to unknown environments.
We also had to know ahead of time about every big and small detail that would go right, as well as every little thing that might go wrong.
To learn this, a great deal of our training revolved around rehearsing what we were about to do in space, in exact replicas of our spacecraft. We often worked in Command Module and Lunar Module simulators to give us an idea of how to pilot the spacecraft that would take us to the moon and back. We spent months rehearsing in these two simulators, so we had a feel for how we would sit, how we would sleep and eat, how we would pilot the spacecraft, and how we would communicate with the many individuals back at Mission Control in Houston.
The Command Module simulator gave us the opportunity to simulate our flight from liftoff to landing. Its console was identical to our real one with switches, displays, dials, controls, and communication equipment. It even had a realistic view out of the window created with a motion picture. In this device we would simulate countdown and launch — and then we’d fly into earth’s orbit, go into translunar flight, orbit the moon, come within feet of a lunar landing, complete a spacecraft rendezvous, and then return home with reentry and splashdown.
We also used these simulators to work out all sorts of serious problems we might encounter along the way. At first we’d fly a program straight through without problems. But then, the trainers intentionally tried to challenge us. They would throw in horrific problems for us to solve, like a meteorite hitting our spacecraft or a malfunction in our control systems. It was our responsibility to quickly figure out how to respond to these crises and get used to solving problems in space.
“Earthrise: My Adventures as an Apollo 14 Astronaut” by Dr. Edgar Mitchell is available at bookstores everywhere and at amazon.com.