WHAT SHE DOES
Equips astronauts with engineering skills and survival strategies.
European Space Agency
WHERE SHE DOES IT
Dives to underwater habitats; flies on ESA’s “vomit comet”; hangs out in caves.
This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.
In September 2008, Loredana Bessone spent six days in a pitch-black cave in Sardinia with half a dozen colleagues from the European Space Agency. No one ventured out of the 10-meter-wide base camp without a helmet, a harness, and two headlamps, one a spare. “You don’t move without them,” she says. “They become part of your body.”
Unfortunately, your body is the problem in a cave. Hygiene is limited, and if you don’t build the toilet right—far from the “kitchen” but close enough to reach without a buddy—the only smell that can begin to mask the odor is that of your companions’ pungent sweat.
You’d be forgiven for wondering if this Italian excursion was the world’s worst team-building exercise, but every bit of it was conceived by Bessone to teach astronauts how to survive in extreme environments. After prospective spacefarers master the draconian physical and mental tests to join ESA’s astronaut corps, they show up at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany. They’re in better physical shape than 98 percent of the human race, smarter than 99 percent of them, and 100 percent more likely to be shot to the edges of Earth’s gravity well.
Newbie and veteran astronauts alike spend six weeks a year facing down Bessone, who oversees their robotics, engineering, software, and behavioral training—including the six-day cave stint, which isn’t far from violating the Geneva Convention. Without it, Bessone wouldn’t be confident they’d survive a six-month stay in the orbiting cigar box that is the International Space Station (ISS).
Bessone is a flinty northern Italian in teetering snakeskin slingbacks. Her sharply styled red hair frames huge, skeptical brown eyes. To serve her students, she has scoped out several stalactite-filled caves in search of the ones that will induce maximum psychological distress. She has endured several parabolic flights, ricocheting through Earth’s stratosphere to briefly experience weightlessness. And she once dove to Aquarius, a laboratory 20 meters beneath the ocean’s surface near Key Largo, Fla., in which trainees experience the cramped conditions of life in a metal pod surrounded by hostile territory.
There’s only one goal: Give the astronauts survival skills. How to do so is entirely at her discretion.
Bobbing around in a pool while wearing a 100-kilogram space suit is one component. Having practiced it herself, Bessone now teaches her trainees to float and maneuver without relying on their legs, by using the delicate bones of their wrists to grab a pole and generate torque. “It’s a bit like ballet,” she says. Gravity management, in a nutshell.
She’s also schooled them in computer science and engineering, with tutorials on how to fix a solar array and how to manipulate the ISS’s giant robotic arm. But what’s most compelling to her is applying systems engineering principles to human behavior: what happens when highly competent, intelligent people fall apart. “These people are the most technically capable people you will find anywhere—they don’t screw up because they didn’t study,” she says. Other stressors are what trip them up. And when people screw up in space, they perish.