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Flight School: "Marshy and forested terrain - night 1

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This is the first part of three about my survival training. Photos here.

Every cosmonaut has to go through a two-night survival experience to be qualified as a cosmonaut. The training wears off, so career cosmonauts repeat it every five years. The idea is to have the skills and experience to survive a couple of days after landing "in marshy and forested terrain in winter" in case there is a problem and a rescue crew cannot find you or get to you. That's increasingly unlikely in these days of GPS, satellite phones, helicopters and the like, but you never know: There could be a blizzard.... In any case, it's a useful bonding experience and challenges one's overall capabilities. For me, it was a great chance to get to know two cosmonauts up close.

The other flaw with the premise is that the experience sends three healthy people into the woods (or in other variations, into a large swimming pool or the Black Sea). In reality, anyone who's been in space for six months is likely to have difficulty standing back on Earth, let alone chopping down trees for firewood and shelter. Yet it's amazing what you can do if the occasion arises, and having done it once before should make it easier to summon the resources. Whatever! Last Thursday our crew of three reported in front of the Pilots' Cafeteria at 9 am for our trip into the wilderness.

It took two vans to take us all: a couple of officers, two doctors and a psychologist, three translators, one of the girls from the cafeteria (sorry, but that's what she is called here), and a few other hangers-on. Then there was the crew: me, commander Alexander Samokutyaev and board engineer Oleg Skripochka. Sanya (short for Alexander) is what you might call the flower of Russian manhood: large, cheerful, strong but kind, a good leader. Oleg is somewhat smaller and darker of mien, but more thoughtful. I asked him at one point what his wife thinks of his career, and he answered: "It depends on the results." Class of 1997, he has been waiting to fly into space for 11 years.

In about half an hour, we arrived at a resort called Soyuz ("union," as in the Soviet Union and also as in the Soyuz space craft). It bordered on a forest; we installed ourselves in a couple of cottages overlooking that forest, which was marked off with a sturdy metal fence. We crossed through a gat to check out our capsule, which had "landed" near the gate, and the forest behind.

We spent the morning doing medical tests - basically EKGs, pulse and blood pressure, a weigh-in - and talking with the psychologist, who gave us a variety of tests that lost something in translation: "On a scale of 1 to 5, do you feel zippy or depressed?" Then we waited around for lunch, with the television in the background. Putin was giving a talk at the World Economic Forum, the high-profile conference I had been invited to speak at but had reluctantly passed up in order to do my wilderness training. No one else even noticed, or knew what the WEF was. Different world!

Then lunch, exactly the same as at the Pilots' Cafe, as if we had carried our world with us, and then we got ready. We put on our space suits - fortunately without the medical belts or headsets. The first exercise was to get back out of them inside the capsule, which was already a tight fit for three people in regular clothing sitting still. (If I ever actually land in a desolate waste, I will probably break protocol and get undressed and dressed outside, but the theory is that you want to stay out of the rain or cold. Whatever!)

At this exercise at least I excelled. The space suits we use in training are used, most designed to fit someone half again as big as me, so I got out of mine easily and threw it out the hatch (according to the rules) while Oleg and Alexander struggled to get out of theirs. Putting on the survival clothes, however, was no easy matter, amidst a tangle of legs and arms, switches and valves and protruding bits of equipment. First we had to find the stuff, compressed into fabric sausage rolls, which the trainers had cleverly hidden (in its proper places) throughout the capsule: a flight suit, a zip-it-up thing with legs but no sleeves that fits over a sweater; then a pilot's jacket with sleeves; then a puffy zip-up snowsuit with arms and legs; and finally a puffy outer jacket with a hood. Add to that fur booties underneath puffy cloth boots underneath the two chopped-off legs of the water suit (a sturdy waterproof full-body covering to be used in case of a water landing). And of course a cunning wool hat and two sets of gloves.

In fact, all this clothing was wonderful protection against the cold, but a little awkward to move around in. Being small, I was relatively quick and got dressed and out as quickly as I could to let the other two wrestle with their clothing within a slightly larger space. Both of them were sweating by the time they got out.

Getting ready for the first night

Once out, we proceeded to look far a place to set up camp (although we had actually pretty much settled on it that morning). It was now already after two, with only three hours of light left. According to the rules, we had to build a traditional Russian shelter, basically a one-wall windbreak in front of a fire, before nightfall. We could use everything that was in the capsule, the parachute material next to it, and anything we could procure in the forest. The next day, with more time, we would build a wigwam, a tradition handed over by early NASA astronauts who had participated in previous survival exercises.

About 50 meters from the Soyuz we found a bit of a clearing and two nicely placed trees.

Our windbreak was one large 3-meter log tied about a meter and a half high between the two trees. We tied two other logs to that first log, extending diagonally down to the ground at a 45-degree angle (see photo), and then tied four more logs between the two diagonals, creating a rack/wall that covered a small patch of ground. We took fronds of pine and wove them between the logs to create a nice piny, slanted roof. We covered that with parachute silk and then, inside, with a metallic medical blanket - an amazingly thin and flexible yet sturdy metallic sheet that reflects heat and is impermeable to wind. On the floor we laid yet more pine branches thick with needles, covering it with more parachute cloth and the other half of the medical blanket. In front of that we built a fire.

It's actually a stretch to say "we." The guys went off and chopped wood, first straight logs for the shelter and then pretty much anything for the fire. I collected branches and kindling, and cut up parachute silk with Oleg. I did at one point take up the machete to chop a few needle-rich branches off a large tree trunk, but that was more to prove a point than to really help out. Alexander built a ready-to-go signal fire - a pile of needle-rich kindling that could ignite in a few seconds and provide a huge outpouring of smoke, to keep at the ready in case some rescuers happened by. We covered it in - of course - parachute silk to keep it ready for use.

The temperature was just a bit under freezing - enough to keep us dry, but not really chilled. Even I built up a bit of a sweat, and I took off my outer jacket (as instructed) in order to stay dry. The major two enemies, I had learned and would soon experience, were wetness and fire, whether too much or too little.

By the time it got dark, we had a nice fire going. We had surrounded our little shelter with the three seats from the capsule; they were useful for keeping things in or, upside down, for sitting on.

Our trainers dropped by to check up on us and to bring some "non-nominal" plastic bottles of water. (The premise was that they were making us work extra hard by building a shelter *and* a wigwam, and there was ample snow around from which we *could* have made water, so they gave us the water for "free.") They checked out our shelter and our piles of wood, and pronounced themselves satisfied.

Nighttime

Every two hours during the day and every hour at night, we had to get on the crackly satellite phone and call for help: "I'm Materyk ["continent," the name of our crew]. We need rescue. We have landed 30 kilometers from the center of Moscow. The crew is in good condition."

These exact words had to be repeated three times. "After a few times," said our trainer, "you'll get tired of those words and be tempted to say something funny. But don't! We'll judge you on that. In a real situation, the rescuers will be hearing you for the first time, and if you're joking, they may indeed take it as a joke and not bother to rescue you."

Nonetheless, sometime during the second night, Alexander tried to tell me to say, "I'm Materyk. We need rescue. We have landed 10,000 kilometers from New York." But I resisted temptation and kept my reputation.

Our hours were strict: Sit around the fire until 11, and then the first watch would begin, with Oleg on duty until 2 am, and the other two of us sleeping. In theory.

The reality of the virtual emergency landing

Of course, in reality we were 50 meters from some nice warm cottages, indoor toilets, beds, lamps...all kinds of modern miracles. I was aware of them the whole time, but as memories or something to look forward to, not as anything accessible.

Yet they impinged on us. Through the night we could hear car engines, airplanes overhead, dance music from some cottages (probably not our trainers') and the regular sounds of a winter resort. A fluffy animal about the size of a small dog appeared in the dark outside our camp; it turned out to be a large, overweight house cat! Various people walking through the woods offered us help - until they realized we were there on purpose!

At some point, it realized I could not go to sleep without taking a pee first. I had resisted all afternoon, but no longer. So I took the wad of toilet paper I had put into the little bag they had allowed me for "female hygienic equipment" and headed off into the woods. The first time, I wasn't quite sure what I needed, but I figured it out: a private place, a few non-leafy branches that could serve as hooks for my outer jacket and pilot's jacket and gloves, with a few more sturdy branches that I could cling to in order to position myself over the snow and away from the snowsuit and jumpsuit I had bundled around my thighs. It was awkward and cold, but the real unpleasantness was simply worry that I would get my clothing wet, suffering shame as well as discomfort. (Fortunately, my digestive tract pretty much shut down for the whole two days, so I was worried only about urine. Another female astronaut told me later about one of the male cosmonauts who had ended up needing to do "number-2," which is actually what they call it, after the setting on the space toilet for solid wastes. He told her, in effect, "Wow! Now I see what it's like to be a woman in the woods. I don't see how you can stand it!")

My business done, I reassembled all my clothing, kicked some snow over the toilet paper, and rejoined my group... feeling much better, but dreading the next time I'd have to go. In the end, it was two more times on Friday and once more on Saturday morning. I remember each time!

Trying to sleep

For the first watch, Oleg was to watch the fire and make the hourly calls, while I would sleep right in front of the fire and Alexander would sleep behind me. For the second shift, Alexander would watch, I would move the back of the shelter and Oleg would sleep in front.

However... of all the problems I expected, this one was a complete surprise. Alexander snores. And I wasn't yet tired enough to sleep through it. So I kinda dozed the next three hours, with my contact lenses out, dimly watching as Oleg tended the fire. To my surprise, I was more or less warm - at least on average! I was a bit nervous about being so close to the fire, but I watched the sparks land on the parachute cloth and on my own clothing - which merely melted.

Now here's a question I hope to answer: Do people snore in weightlessness? Mostly it's due to part of your throat sagging and covering your windpipe, so probably not. I'll have to ask Alexander's crewmates...

At long last Oleg handed over to Alexander, and I got a bit of sleep until my own watch started at 5. I was already awake and happy to get up and move around a bit. Tending the fire was more challenging than I expected. With the below-zero temperatures we were dry, but the wood was soggy and some of it was encrusted with ice. So there were three separate tasks: Keep the fire going, with a flame, to maximize warmth and reduce smoke. That required big, long-burning logs as well as smaller branches and occasional kindling. Second, keep the fire from getting too robust and sending sparks everywhere. Every once in a while I had to poke at the parachute silk or at Alexander's snowsuit to extinguish a spark. And third, dry out new logs to replace the ones that were currently burning up. Sort of a metaphor for managing a business, I thought dreamily. Short-term vs. long-term...

At last it was 8 am and I woke the others up. The fire was burning brightly and it had a couple of big logs drying out on top.

Next post (soon!): Day 2/Night 2