Tim Peake completes survival training in Sardinia
At the end of June, Tim Peake, together with five fellow astronaut candidates, were thrown out of a helicopter, left to drift at sea and abandoned under the hot Mediterranean sun. Fortunately, they had all received training in survival skills enabling them to cope in tough situations.
Astronauts have to be prepared for almost everything in space, but also anything on the ground. This could be, for example, an emergency landing in a faraway place. Spacecraft leaving the International Space Station may be forced to come down in the sea, desert, tropical rain forest or on a glacier, in summer or winter.
Before the astronauts can be rescued, they may have to rely only on very basic items and the emergency pack in their Soyuz capsule. Therefore survival training is a vital part of basic training of all astronauts.
The new European recruits, Tim Peake, Samantha Cristoforetti, Alexander Gerst, Andreas Mogensen, Luca Parmitano and Thomas Pesquet reached this important milestone at the end of June. They spent two weeks in survival training using the skills required to stay alive in a harsh environment with very little equipment.
Camping, swimming, hunting
"We wanted to give them the basic knowledge of survival in the wilderness," says Loredana Bessone, responsible for survival training at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne. "After having learnt general survival skills, applicable in all weather conditions and in any environment, they will learn vehicle and environment-specific survival skills later, during their mission training."
Once they had learnt the theory, it was time to put it into practice. With assistance from instructors, the Italian police, the air force, coast guard, local authorities and the national mountaineering rescue organisation, the astronaut candidates were flown by helicopter to a remote location. They were asked to set up camp, make a fire and find food: fishing, trapping animals, preparing meals and cooking with primitive tools.
The future astronauts also stripped an old car for tools and spare parts, which they later used to build their shelters, traps and snares, and as fishing aids.
They were introduced to the skills of climbing, descending high cliffs safely, crossing rivers and navigating in the wilderness using nature and the stars to guide them. Survival medicine was also a vital part of the training.
After three days, they were given dry clothes and a new mission: to hike to a rendezvous point across canyons, ponds and cliffs, find and treat water, and sleep overnight in an improvised shelter.
Finally, the six were ‘rescued’ by helicopter, but the relief was short. They were forced to jump into the sea, inflate a liferaft and were left to float alone in the Mediterranean until the following morning.
More than a nice day out
"Luckily the weather was nice all the time," said Samantha Cristoforetti. "The daytime temperature wasn’t over 30°C and during the nights it wasn’t colder than about 10°C."
But still the training was far from being a holiday camp: drying clothes after swimming in the sea or the river takes time, climbing mountains requires nerves of steel and hunting animals for food is not something for city slickers – even for astronauts.
"We were quite hungry after the first 48 hours," recalls Tim Peake. "Sleeping in those conditions is not easy. But looking back now, it was a great experience."
For the recruits with a military background, survival training was not new. "But in the forces, we mostly tried to find ways to hide, so as not to get found," explains Tim, a survival trainer himself in his previous career in the British Army Air Corps. He has nothing but praise for the local instructors and the support they provided.
After ‘surviving’ the survival training, ESA’s astronaut candidates are now on the home stretch before they can be officially called astronauts next autumn, when – and if – they pass the final exams.