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NASA astronauts train with SERE for space mission

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Four NASA astronauts trained with U.S. Air Force Survival School instructors in water survival and recovery Feb. 10, at the base fitness center pool.

The astronauts underwent the training in preparation for anticipated test flights of the new commercially made American rockets, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon.

“It’s a different space program now,” said Sunita Williams, NASA astronaut. “We’re flying in capsules instead of shuttles, and they can land anywhere. You never know when an emergency situation may happen, so we’re grateful to get this training.”

The astronauts were put through the paces of bailing out from a simulated crash landing in water. They learned to deploy and secure a life raft, rescue endangered crew members, avoid hostile forces and experience being hoisted into a rescue vehicle.

“This is the first time we’ve gotten a complete environmental training experience,” said Doug Hurley, NASA astronaut. “Lots of wind, waves and rain. This is a great way to experience how bad it can get and how important it is to be prepared.”

The astronauts opted to join in with more than 20 water survival course students, despite being given the option to train alone.

“They didn’t want to train on their own,” said Lt. Col. Chas Tacheny, chief of NASA Human Space Flight Support-Houston. “They wanted to train with the group because some of these people may one day be preforming search and rescue for them.”

Other NASA astronauts visited the Survival School last year in an effort to research and test the viability of its training course and facilities. The astronauts liked what they experienced and NASA has since developed its training partnership with the schoolhouse.

“The SERE instructors are advising us in water recovery,” said Behnken. “These experts are the most experienced I’ve ever seen. They are able to spot holes in our training and fill the gaps.”

NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Huston possesses a large water training facility built to simulate weightless conditions during space walks, but it’s not properly equipped to simulate water surface conditions for recovery training.

This training is vital for future NASA mission recovery operations, said Behnken. We are working with the experts here to eventually replicate the Survival School water survival training equipment at the NBL facility in Huston.

“I’m impressed by the use of the facilities here,” said Williams. “It’s a small space, but they really manage to simulate all kinds of weather conditions and situations we might experience during a water landing.”

The Survival School originally had a separate detachment at the Pensacola Naval Air Station where it conducted water survival training in open ocean waters. The training was brought to Fairchild Air Force Base in August 2015 in an effort to save time and money by consolidating training at one location.

“It was a good decision for the Air Force to streamline our training efforts by moving all portions of water survival training here,” said Col. John Groves, 336th Training Group commander. “However, the fitness center pool was designed for recreational use and isn’t suited to the ever increasing demands placed on it by our training programs. Bottom line, we owe it to our Airmen and mission partners such as NASA, who rely on our unique training capabilities, to have a purpose built water survival training facility.”

The visiting NASA team members included:

Retired Air Force Col. Bob Behnken - Behnken was selected as an astronaut in 2000 and is a veteran of two space flights. He is currently assigned to train to fly the initial test flights for America’s first commercially built spacecraft, and is one of four astronauts selected to fly aboard the Boeing CST-100 Starliner or SpaceX Dragon.

Retired Air Force Col. Eric Boe - Boe was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 2000. In 1987, Boe was commissioned from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Before his military retirement in 2012, he logged more than 6000 flight hours in over 50 aircraft.

Retired Marine Corps Col. Doug Hurley – Hurley was selected as an astronaut in 2000 and is a veteran of two space flights. Hurley holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Tulane University. He was a fighter and test pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps before joining NASA.

Navy Captain Sunny Williams – Williams was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1998 and is a veteran of two space missions. She is currently part of a cadre of astronauts training to fly the initial test flights for America’s first commercially built spacecraft, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon.