Dream Jobs 2011: Teaching Astronauts How to Survive

At the European Space Agency, Loredana Bessone prepares explorers for the rigors of space

5 min read
Loredana Bessone
Photo: Andreas Teichmann

graphic link to the Dream Jobs report.

Loredana Bessone

IEEE member

AGE 46

Equips astronauts with engineering skills and survival strategies.

European Space Agency

Cologne, Germany

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.

So she designed a computer training simulation to temper overly confident astronauts and Eurocomms—the European equivalent of the guys on the receiving end of “Houston, we have a problem.” In the scenario, four players embark on a routine mission to Venus. En route, the astronauts discover that the solar array charging the spaceship’s batteries has broken, and the crew must charge them manually.

It sounds simple, but in the ensuing onslaught of tasks, they can’t relay information to each other fast enough. By the 3-minute mark, a Lord of the Flies situation has taken hold. A husky Spaniard is barking orders, while a surly Canadian contradicts him. Petty gibes escalate to bad feelings as the clock ticks and the batteries drain.

Communication soon breaks down entirely. The astronauts tell the Eurocomms to “send battery L1 down lift L1.”

“What the hell is L1?!” explodes a Eurocomm. Grating Klaxons clang in the players’ ears—system failure is imminent.

“We said lift one. Are you deaf?” snaps the Canadian.

The mission ends in disaster: The ship hurtles into Venus’s gravity well. After the last alarm dies out, there’s only defeated silence.

“So,” Bessone says drily from the corner where she has been scribbling notes. “What could we have done better?”

“I don’t have a typical anything,” Bessone remarks later. “My job always changes so dramatically: computer science, engineering, training, psychology, geology. There are so many things that I keep learning.”

With all the caving and diving and bumbling around in space suits, fitness is key. Not one extra kilogram finds refuge on Bessone’s wiry frame. Being multilingual is also essential. She was prepared for that by an accident of geography: Bessone grew up in the Piedmont region of Italy speaking the local dialect, which is closer to French than Italian. Now she’s fluent in all three, plus German, English, and Spanish. Two beginner’s Russian books on her shelf speak to her next conquest.

Her technical skills also came naturally. As a child, Bessone was in love with astrophysics, the stuff of star births and black holes. She couldn’t afford to attend a school with a strong astrophysics program, so she studied informatics at the University of Turin, an hour’s drive from her hometown. She completed a master’s degree in informatics while working at CERN, the European nuclear research center in Geneva.

In 1990, ESA hired her for a student job in Cologne. A few months later, she got a real offer. She broke the news to her mother during a visit home. “I told her, ‘Mom, I need to tell you something you won’t like,’”  Bessone says. “She looked at me, worried, and asked, ‘Are you getting married?’” Bessone explained that she would be staying in Germany. Her mother breathed a sigh of relief. “Good,” she said. “You can end that when you want without trouble.”

Within ESA, she slowly found her way toward human space flight. She collected a second master’s degree, in space systems, from the Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands, and in 2001 she was tapped to work on Aurora, ESA’s push to put a boot print on Mars by 2030. Her training work emerged from that project.

Though a cave can’t replicate either the weightlessness or the true trauma of space, it helps astronauts comprehend impenetrable darkness, isolation, and confinement. (Not to mention the experience of maneuvering in three dimensions—if you forget to orient your z -axis, toothy stalactites will be only too happy to remind you.)

Cave training has another, further-out application that Bessone sometimes dares to dream about. After the first astronauts are sent to Mars, she thinks it won’t be long before they’ll be spelunking under the planet’s frigid surface. If there is life on Mars, Bessone believes it will be huddled in the comparative warmth of caves, where there may even be liquid water. And where there’s water and warmth, there will be extremophiles—tough little creatures that can thrive in desolate wastelands and temperatures that dip below zero.

But astro-spelunking won’t happen anytime soon, and Bessone wistfully awaits a change of heart from the world’s cash-strapped and risk-averse space agencies. In the meantime, she has no particular time frame for settling down. Someday, she says, she’ll relocate to a small town in the mountains. “Someday,” she repeats, this time stretching out the word and augmenting it with an expansive swipe of her arm, as though indicating a galaxy far, far away. For now, she’s happy calling all of planet Earth’s exotic pockets home. And so, like the extremophiles that she’s confident are lurking on a planet 200-some million kilometers from the sun, she thrives.

A version of this article originally appeared in print as “Spelunking on Mars.”

About the Author

Sally Adee, formerly an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, is now a technology features editor at New Scientist, in London. She says it was an honor to write her last feature for Spectrum about the European Space Agency’s Loredana Bessone, a woman she considers a role model. “One day, I’m going to hit her up at ESA to start training me as an astronaut,” she says with a wink. “Right after I get sick of playing roller derby in London.”

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2011.

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