Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Saturday, 29 August 2009 14:54 UK

'Space rookies' soak it up

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

European astronauts (BBC)
They are the first Esa astronauts recruited since 1992

"I've read so much and heard so much about this place, and to come here and see it is absolutely fantastic. There's just so much history here."

Tim Peake is gazing across pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The Discovery shuttle is sat atop its concrete hardstand ready to blast off to the International Space Station (ISS).

The new British astronaut candidate is revelling in the experience. He's about to start his training and what better way to get a feel for the life that lies ahead than a visit to the famous Florida spaceport?

"It's a great treat for us to be here, to be actually able to touch the dream so close to our training," reflects fellow astronaut rookie, the Italian Samantha Cristoforetti.

Peake and Cristoforetti were accepted into the European Astronaut Corps in May along with Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, Germany's Alexander Gerst, Denmark's Andreas Mogensen; and another Italian, Luca Parmitano.

They are the first such intake at the European Space Agency (Esa) since 1992 and "school" starts in just a few days.

Their trip to Kennedy was a chance to glimpse past, current and future space activity; to get some idea of where they fit into human space exploration.

First stop was in the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF), a giant warehouse where all the elements and modules needed to assemble the orbiting platform are stored prior to launch.

Node 3 (BBC)
Node 3 was constructed in Europe and is undergoing final checks at Kennedy

With the ISS nearly complete, the facility looks pretty bare - except for the two European-made critical items the Esa team came to inspect.

One is the Node 3, a connecting unit that can link other parts of the station together. The other is the Cupola, a giant window from where astronauts will control robotic operations on the exterior of the platform.

Tim Peake (BBC)

The two items will be joined for their flight to orbit and engineers are currently going through the final checks before loading the modules into a shuttle that will launch early next year.

One gets the impression that the Cupola is going to be extremely popular with the astronauts on station.

It will point down to Earth and afford extraordinary views of home. The new Esa astronauts expect they will spend quite a bit of time in the module.

"I think for your first visit [to the ISS], there will be so many unique experiences to deal with; because nothing can truly prepare you for weightlessness," says Major Peake.

"It will probably take a couple of days to acclimatise. And then, yes, there is the view, orbiting the Earth and seeing the size of the space station. It's going to be incredible."

From the SSPF, it was a short bus ride across the Kennedy industrial area to see inside the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF).

Few get this close to a shuttle: the astronauts were allowed to walk under and around Atlantis which has not long returned from a mission to service the Hubble telescope.

Astronauts (BBC)
The astronauts learn about the heat shield material on the shuttle

A key topic of conversation were those remarkable heat-resistant tiles stuck down on the orbiter's aluminium skin - all 24,000 of them.

Atlantis was literally within reach but was strictly "do not touch". Sample tiles were handed around instead; and one of the shuttle engineers produced the party trick of squirting water on to a block of the same silica material used to construct the heat shield.

"The tile just absorbed a huge quantity; not even a drop hit the floor," recalls Major Peake. "And clearly, when you realise if the shuttle is parked on the pad and a thunderstorm comes over, they have to have some serious water-proofing to prevent the [orbiter] soaking up too much water."

The new Esa astronauts, though, are unlikely ever to get to fly in a shuttle. The programme is due to be shut down next year (or early in 2011) and Atlantis and the remaining vehicles in the reusable fleet will be sent to museums.

A more realistic future could be found in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

This colossal structure dominates the Cape Canaveral skyline.

Ares 1-X (BBC)
The top of the Ares 1-X

It was built to house final preparations of the Saturn 5 Moon rocket, and is the location today where shuttles are attached to their external tanks and solid boosters before being rolled out to the launch pad.

But tucked in one corner is a new rocket - the Ares 1-X.

It is a demonstrator for the vehicle that Nasa hopes will launch its future crew capsule, Orion. The Esa astronauts had to climb a gantry to get a clear look at this rocket which stands almost 100m high.

The Ares I-X has been wired with more than 700 sensors to gather engineering data during its two-and-a-half-minute flight test scheduled for October.

The top half of the rocket is hollow and carries ballast to represent a realistic mass.

The shape, though, is correct, right down to the dummy Orion capsule on top. The Esa team was able to look up at it and think "that could be me one day".

It may not be, of course. President Obama has asked a high-level panel to review the Ares plans and the programme may never get beyond the 1-X test flight.

Esa astronauts might have to hitch rides on another, as yet undefined, crew launch system.

Andre Kuipers (centre) with the six new recruits (BBC)
Andre Kuipers says his new colleagues must be patient

"The Augustine commission is going to have a big impact on the future of human spaceflight, so we are at a crossroads," says Denmark's Andreas Mogensen.

"The question is what are we going to do with the international Space Station; and what's going to happen after that? Are we going to go back to the Moon? It's a very important time."

A very interesting time, too. The Six return to Europe. They have all moved to Cologne, Germany, to be close to the European Astronaut Centre.

Training is upon them and a crash course in Russian tops the timetable (if you want to fly on a Soyuz and live aboard the space station, you have to have the language).

Some advice from Esa's experienced hands, the astronauts who've actually been there and done it?

Germany's two-time shuttle-crewman Hans Schlegal says the new recruits must emphasise "teamwork, teamwork, teamwork," if they are to succeed.

And mindful of the years that can pass between missions, Andre Kuipers, the Dutch astronaut selected for an ISS tour in 2011, warns that one quality above all others has to be maintained: "Patience. You need patience. You need to keep up your motivation. And remember, it will always be different to how you think it will be."

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