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Educating astronauts for space travel

by Anna Bratulic

By 2003, the International Space Station will be a giant orbiting laboratory. A crew of seven astronauts will call it home for three to six months at a time, and they have two-and-a-half years to master the hundreds of systems aboard the station.

Elaine Greenberg, a learning contractor at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), helps them train for their missions.

She was the keynote speaker at the 7th annual symposium organized by the students in the Department of Education, which took place February 5 and 6. The theme this year was "Learning Landscapes: Education in Action."

The two-day event had students and scholars present their research to a peer audience on innovations in education. Included were dozens of talks on such subjects as improving science literacy for children, how we should interact with computer instructional systems, and goal-setting for the self-learner given by an adult educator.

Greenberg, who graduated with a Master of Arts degree in Educational Technology from Concordia in 1989, specializes in designing new and better ways of training people; in this case, robotics training for astronauts and mission controllers.

Canada's contribution to the space station is the Mobile Servicing System (MSS), in many ways similar to the renowned Canadarm, which is crucial in assembling and maintaining the station before and after its completion. As well, it will allow the astronauts to work within the shuttle and spend less time in the hostile environment of outer space.

"They're being trained to develop skills, not to follow procedure," Greenberg said. "That way they are able to respond to unplanned situations." Astronauts need to "pass" the knowledge, skill and attitude components of their training in order to proceed to the next level.

The attitude component involves knowledge of security aspects and respect for other crew members. "So that if you know there's an astronaut at the end of the 'arm,' you know not to drive too fast," Greenberg said.

Instructional designers at the CSA have had to overcome several obstacles in how they customize learning for astronauts. They have had to contend with simulation difficulties, language barriers (CSA trains astronauts from around the world), and lack of time. When Greenberg calculated that the astronauts needed four weeks to complete MSS operations training, NASA said it had to be done in half the time.

Greenberg finds herself designing training methods for people to operate systems on a station that does not even exist yet, and whose environment cannot accurately be reproduced on Earth. It is somewhat like learning how to fly a airplane only from a textbook, then going solo around the world on the first run.

All the training takes place in the state-of-the-art MSS Operations Complex at the CSA's headquarters in St. Hubert, Quebec. They make use of a variety of simulation facilities, including mock set-ups of computers and visual displays found on board the station.

Virtual Reality has proved useful in simulating microgravity. CSA trainees wear head-mounted displays, which look much like those found in high-tech arcades. These contraptions fool the brain into thinking it is in a 0 gravity environment. In the past, astronauts would don heavy space suits and be submerged in pools of water. While this reproduced the feeling of weightlessness, they still had a sense of direction, which is not the case in outer space.

The CSA astronaut training program has received rave reviews from previous "students." Some have even said that Canada has the best training program in the world, even better than NASA's own.

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.