What the Soyuz Descent Capsule looks like from inside.
What the Soyuz Descent Capsule looks like from inside. Image Credit: Janice Ponce de Leon/Gulf News

Moscow: Do you ever wonder what it’s like to train to become an astronaut?

Gulf News is currently in Star City in Moscow, home to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC) where we’ll give you a sneak peek of what astronauts and cosmonauts go through before they are launched to space.

This is where the UAE’s first Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansoori and reserve astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi spent the last year to prepare for the mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on September 25. They completed their yearlong astronaut training just this Friday.

Members of the UAE media got to try some of the tests that Hazza and Sultan went through.

The centre was originally known as the Special Military Unit 26266 that was established in January 1960 to train cosmonauts. It was renamed as Yu. A. Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre on April 30, 1968 to give the highest honour to Yuri Gagarin for being the first man in space and to memorialise this achievement.

The facility has several simulators namely the ISS Russian Segment mockup facility, a Soyuz complex simulator, an ISS crew training facility with elements of virtual reality, an astro-navigational dynamic facility, a low pressure chamber, and an isolation chamber.

ISS Russian Segment Mockup Facility

The replica of the ISS enables astronauts to learn how to operate the Russian segment (RS) of the ISS in space. The buttons and keys to this part are all in Russian so learning the language is key.

The ISS simulator has the replica of the Zvezda Service Module which supports the survival of astronauts in space. The module serves as the living quarters for the astronauts with three sleep stations are available.

It also houses the life support systems, flight control systems, data processing systems, propulsion systems and electrical power distribution. It also has a communication system and a docking port for the Soyuz (crew) and Progress (cargo) spacecraft.

The other parts of the ISS mockup are the Zarya or the Functional Cargo Block – FGB simulator, which is used as the operator’s workstation, the training simulator MBVC, which is a model of the ISS RS computer system, and a simulator of the ISS US Orbital Segment.

Two modules are under development and will be sent to the ISS next year. The replicas are available at the complex to train astronauts for future missions when the modules have been launched.

1) Full-scale simulator of the multi-purpose laboratory module (MLM simulator). This module is expected to be sent to the ISS in 2020.

2) Node Module

"The lifespan of the space station is until 2024. Now we're working to lengthen that lifespan that is why we are preparing these two new modules. To check if we can extend the lifespan or close it and deorbit the station," explained Valery Batrakov, deputy chief of the ISS Mock-up Complex Department.

"The older ones will either be sunk in the Indian Ocean where no ships are passing or we can continue to use it. Or they are jettisoned and they burn up as they enter the atmosphere."

"If they will decide to prolong the lifespan of the station, the Zvezda will be maintained. Otherwise, the MLM will be its replacement."

Stop 7: The Soyuz Complex Simulator

The Soyuz Complex Simulator

The Soyuz spacecraft has been the only vehicle transporting astronauts to and from ISS since 2011.

Anyone planning to go space has to train how to use the Soyuz through the simulators at GCTC.

This spacecraft has three parts: the Orbital, Descent, and the Instrumentation and Service Module.

The Orbital Capsule is the topmost part of the Soyuz and it is this part of the capsule that has the hatch that connects to the ISS.

This is where the toilet and communication equipment are located, as well as cargo and equipment required for the crew’s survival in space.

The middle part is the Descent Module which the crew use to ascend to space, and return and land on Earth. It is cramped and has three seats—the middle seat is for the Russian commander of the spaceflight.

To his left is where Nasa astronaut Jessica Meir will sit, while Hazza will sit to his right.

What the Soyuz Descent Capsule looks like from inside
What the Soyuz Descent Capsule looks like from inside. Image Credit: Janice Ponce de Leon/Gulf News

This capsule provides protection for the crew as it isolates them for launch and landing. It has the custom-made seats equipped with a shock absorbing system to minimise the impact on astronauts as the spacecraft lands.

It also has a heat shield that protects it during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. It’s packed with an automated parachute system with a backup parachute to ease the vehicle into a safe landing speed.

The last module contains the life support systems and equipment critical during flight such as batteries, solar panels, and steering engines.

"The Soyuz has a 97 per cent success rate. The escape mechanism in the Soyuz has only been used three times throughout the Soyuz programme," said Vasenin Sergei, lead engineer at GCTC.

"Hundreds of cosmonauts and astronauts have been trained in this facility. All crew flying to the ISS on a Soyuz spacecraft need to go through training here," Sergei said.

Valery Batrakov, deputy chief of the ISS Mock-up Complex Department, says Hazza and Sultan did an excellent job during the exam last weekend.

Stop 6: Isolation chamber

Cosmonauts stay here for 64 hours where they are not allowed to sleep but will be assigned tasks to do. They can play puzzles and other things.

This chamber tests how they will react to isolation, sleep deprivation, and lack of social interaction.

Hazza and Sultan did not take this test because only Russian cosmonauts take this test.

Stop 5: The pressure chamber

Altitude or Pressure Chamber tests how astronauts withstand hypoxia or oxygen deficiency. It determines how they handle sudden pressure changes.

Altitude or Pressure Chamber
Altitude or Pressure Chamber which tests how astronauts withstand hypoxia or oxygen deficiency. Image Credit: Janice Ponce de Leon/Gulf News

"We lift them to 5,000meters above ground and leave them there to check any physiological changes and then lower them down at a speed of 20meters/sec for astronauts. For cosmonauts it's 50m/sec," said Dr Dmitri Lutsevich, therapist.

Altitude or Pressure Chamber
Altitude or Pressure Chamber which tests how astronauts withstand hypoxia or oxygen deficiency. Image Credit: Janice Ponce de Leon/Gulf News

"Both Hazza and Sultan did well in this test. Both are ready for their spaceflight," he added.

Stop 4: The rotating chair

The Rotating Chair tests the vestibular system of an astronaut. This is an apparatus in the inner ear involved in our balance.

It helps astronauts adapt to space motion sickness or what Nasa calls the space adaptation syndrome.

The chair rotates 180 degrees per one second.

"Hazza was the first one to take this test from all the aspiring astronaut from the UAE and he was also the first to pass the test when they did the medical selection here," said Irina Konovalova Irina, functional diagnosis doctor.

Only five per cent of the people cannot pass this test and they can't be trained.

Stop 3: This cycle ergometer tests the astronaut's cardiovascular system

Here, astronauts cycle while in a reclining position. An electrocardiogram is strapped onto the astronaut as he cycles.

Ergometer Image Credit: GN

"Many people have failed to become astronauts because they failed this test. That includes many aspiring astronauts from the UAE during the selection process," said Dr Larisa Shuvatova, cardiologist at GCTC.

Stop 2: The tilting table

Then there's the tilting table to prepare the astronaut to adapt to weightlessness - the table is tilted to negative (-15 degrees for 6 minutes and -40 degrees for another 6 minutes) and it is titled to positive to mimic re-entry.

"Astronauts do this once a year. They take this test again 45 days before the spaceflight. In Baikonur, they will take the same test but with different length of time. It tells how much blood goes up to the head and how astronauts adjust to this environment," Dr Tatiana Ivanovskaya, functional diagnosis doctor, said.

When Hazza and Sultan took the same test, Dr Tatiana said it all went well. She said: "They were great."

Stop 1: Treadmill (the same one astronauts have on the ISS)

Astronaut training main
1st day of training day for any astronaut. The suit is strapped on the astronaut that adds 40kg to 70kg to the astronaut. Image Credit: Janice Leon/Gulf News

1st day of training day for any astronaut. The suit is strapped on the astronaut that adds 40kg to 70kg load to the astronaut.

Some training days are longer and some are shorter. They train every day, doing different exercises daily.

"When doctors assess the astronauts' health, they will give recommendation as to what kind of training they should get," said Boris Shavelev, lead engineer for the Prevent Care Measures at GCTC.