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Before Going To Space, Astronauts Had to Survive the Desert

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No one knew if the first attempts at getting humans into space would crash catastrophically. Before any astronaut could leave the planet, NASA tested their capacity to survive a crash landing in a hostile environment by abandoning them in the desert with only a re-entry pod and parachute for company.

The original seven Mercury astronauts are, left to right, L. Gordon Cooper Jr.; M. Scott Carpenter; John H. Glenn Jr.; Alan B. Shepard Jr.; Virgil I. Grissom; Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Donald K. Slayton. Photo credit: NASA


The first astronauts fiercely embraced the unknown, strapping themselves onto towering stacks of explosives, accelerating at tremendous rates, and experimenting with their lives to discover the impact of spaceflight on the human body. No one will question the bravery of the Mercury Seven, but not all their adventures involved high-technology in the space race.

To ensure the astronauts would survive every eventuality during the first steps into orbit, NASA sent them to survival school to make sure they could live long enough to be rescued in the aftermath of a crash landing somewhere unexpected. The very first survival school took place in the deserts of Nevada in 1960, where the astronauts were expected to use their limited resources to survive the harsh climate.


The astronauts were abandoned in the desert for four days with a mockup of the Mercury spacecraft, parachute attached. The objective was for them to practice a survival scenario in case they were stranded for real after a landing gone awry. They took to their desert-adventure with gusto, some fashioning clothes out of their parachutes prior to being "rescued" in their grimy splendour.

Different variations of this survival training continues today, with the European Space Agency chucking their astronauts out of helicopters or abandoning them at sea, the Russian space agency sending their cosmonauts to winter survival school, and NASA dropping their astronauts off in a variety of situations. The one common feature is that if you want to be an astronaut, you better be ready to crash-land anywhere, and still be alive when we finally track you down days later.


Image credit: Credit: Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC)

For more space-history, check out the first crewed American suborbital launch, and the story of Alan Shepard, moon-golfer.