See related: Fly Me to the Moon: An Exclusive Tour of NASA's Johnson Space Center
Senior Editor Lori Moffatt speaks with Debbie Trainor, a Training Specialist with the Astronaut Office at the Johson Space Center. (Talk about the name fitting the job!)
“I’ve been here at the JSC for 24 years now, but in my present position for eight years. My current job is officially known as the Training Specialist with the Astronaut Office. I’m basically like the principal of a school—I oversee all the training and make sure the astronauts receive what they need to do their jobs.
When astronauts are first elected to be candidates, they receive a year and a half of training, learning the various systems of the International Space Station. We’re talking about a living area that orbits more than 200 miles above the earth, so the astronauts need to be self-sufficient. They learn how to operate and repair the thermal control systems, electrical systems, and communications systems, just to name a few of the many systems they must know. There’s also EVA [Extravehicular Activity—spacewalking, in layman’s terms]training and robotics training. To be an astronaut, you need to be both mentally and physically fit, and you need a wide breadth of knowledge on the technical side as well.
EVA training in particular is very much a physical effort. They train in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab [a 6.2-million-gallon, 40-foot-deep facility that has been called the largest indoor pool n the world]. It’s the only facility we have to simulate weightlessness. But unfortunately, the suits they train in are designed for space flight, not water, and they weigh around 280 pounds. So they must be physically fit to have the endurance to train for hours at a time, completing complex tasks in the water.
We also do a lot of team-building exercises, such as hiking adventures. The astronauts need to be able to work as a team, and it’s better to work on issues here on earth rather than wait until they’re in orbit.
My own background is in computer science; I have degrees in science and math. I started off here at the JSC as a secretary, but once I got here and saw all the different opportunities, I switched from full-time to half-time to take advantage of a NASA project that encourages employees to seek higher education. So with each degree, I was able to move up. It was the BS in math that allowed me to be a Space Station Training Instructor; I taught the astronauts and mission controllers about the computer system of the International Space Station. That led me to work with the various international partners, including the Russians, when they came into the program.
In June 1996, I went to Russia to learn about the Soyuz vehicles that the Russians used. I remember the date well, because that was when they were having their first democratic presidential elections as an independent country, and there were bomb threats, and security people everywhere. [Results were contested and a second round of voting was required to establish Boris Yeltsin as the winner.] Before I left, I got a security brief and I was told there was a 50/50 chance there would be tanks rolling in the streets. We stayed at a hotel in Moscow and witnessed an important moment in history.
I love being part of history every single day. To work here is to work with people who are the best of the best. That someone like that would value my judgment is so rewarding. I’m not sure what it’s like in other industries or organizations, but every single day is a new adventure because there are still new ideas that are being thrown out for international gain. Off the top of my head: medical breakthroughs like the pacemaker, thermal wear that firefighters wear, bicycle helmets…..even Velcro is a spin-off from the Space Program.
Would I go into space? Oh, my goodness, definitely. Who wouldn’t?
From the June 2012 issue.
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