Laura André-Boyet is an Astronaut Instructor and Simulation Director at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne. She trains the astronauts and the ground crew for space missions. Her job is very important, and she has a lot of responsibity - for example, before teaching astronauts how to carry out experiments, she must first work out how the experiments will be done, and what we might be able to learn from them. Most of her work is done with people before they go into space, but at the rare times when anything goes wrong, she can be involved in putting it right. As well as her training duties, she also studies how human bodies react to extreme environments.
What does your job involve?
I work in the Instructor Division at the European Astronaut Centre, in Cologne, Germany. Our mission is to train every astronaut who flies to the International Space Station on the systems and equipment of the European Space Laboratory: Columbus. We also train some specialized astronauts on the scientific experiments they will realize while onboard ISS.
My function is to train the crew about these experiments, understand how to install, deploy, use but also the scientific background, the objectives and the benefits for them and for humans on Earth. Another important dimension of the job is that we also train the Ground Support Personnel, who are all the people involved in the missions and operations on the European side, with Systems, Payloads and Operations knowledge and expertise. They are the people following everything from the ground.
What sort of experiments do you teach the astronauts to do?
There are many different kinds of experiments done on board Columbus and more generally in Space. I specialized in Human Physiology (study of the function of human organisms) and Neurosciences (study of the nervous system).
I am in a first phase closely interacting with the scientists who are aiming to implement their experiment onboard ISS, in order to fully understand the concept and goals of the experiments and in a second phase developing a training suitable for the astronauts, their needs and matching the high ESA standards.
How long does it take to train an astronaut?
A long time! An astronaut must work extremely hard to prepare for his/her activities and follows different training phases from their selection until their flight.
After their selection, the “Astronaut Candidate” enters a two-year phase called basic training after which they'll become a “Certified Astronaut”.
Then the astronaut will spend many years learning everything about the vehicles, the emergency procedures, the functioning of every system until they gets assigned to a flight.After assignment, the astronaut will enter in a final extremely intense mission oriented training phase during which I mainly interact with them.
And what do you do on a typical day?
Every day is different here. On a training day, a session can last for anything between 30 minutes and a few days, and it might be in a classroom, or in a vehicle/laboratory mock-up. Depending on what the astronaut needs to know, we might be teaching theoretical, or more performance oriented training and also some emergency and troubleshooting cases. On a simulation day, we can start quite early or remain on console until late at night, in order to be able to work together with our colleagues at NASA for example. We usually have lots of meetings because communication and coordination are essential to our job.
How did you first get interested in space?
When I was growing up in the French Alps, I wasn't interested in Space, but my grandmother was a physicist, and she got me interested in science. I wanted to be a medical doctor, but then after my degree courses I did an internship with the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), which combined medicine, engineering and space. I became really interested after that.
What did you study?
I studied mainly science subjects in school I studied medicine and physiology at University, then I did two engineering masters degrees, one in France and one in Canada. As part of the engineering degrees I did a research internship in Tsukuba in Japan, and an exchange year in Montreal. Then I went to write my final thesis at CNES. Later on, I took an MBA at the International Space University.
And how did you become an astronaut instructor?
Towards the end of my internship at CNES in 2007, I was chosen to present my work at the International Astronautical Congress, a huge conference where the world's experts in space missions meet to share ideas. I won first prize for my presentation, and after that I was offered a job as Manager of Space Experiments and Operations Leader at CNES. A few years after, I participated to the Basic Training of the last ESA selected astronauts, and a few months later I got the job I have now.
I work at the Astronaut Centre most of the time, but I'm actually employed as a pilot instructor by Lufthansa Flight Training, and sometimes go to the pilot school in Bremen to work with them too.
What skills do you need to be an astronaut instructor?
You have to be dynamic, adaptable and hard-working, and you need to be able to work without a routine, because things are different from day to day. You also need to be good at dealing with people, so you can adapt your training for them. Sometimes, the Russian Cosmonauts, the American astronauts from NASA or Japanese astronauts can have different habits or expectations, and it can be fruitful to be able to understand and adapt accordingly. Sometimes astronauts are exhausted from the very intense rhythm of their life, and even though we may have a lot to teach them, we have to adapt and find a way to still provide them with a high quality training.
Is there are lot of pressure on you?
Often yes. We of course feel a big responsibility in providing the crew and the ground support personnel with a high quality and “firmly anchored” training.
We also have individual responsibility to provide a training according to the way it has been certified by ESA experts to make sure that onboard the crew will indeed remember the training and accomplish the tasks in the right manner.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I like it very much when the astronauts capture the interest of the experiment they will perform, when they also can learn something for themselves, and when I can make a topic interesting for them. Sometimes when they leave the classroom, they say "I'm looking forward to performing this experiment on board" – I then have the feeling I did a good job and it makes me very happy.
When we manage to get the crew interested and involved, that is definitely participating to successful experiment results.
Do you like working with space travel?
To be honest, because I didn't always dream of working in space, it's just another environment for me. But it is so complex and interesting that of course I love to investigate it.
There are so many things we can observe in Space we could never investigate on Earth it makes Space research, exciting and crucial for the future.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of being an astronaut?
Well, it is for sure a hard job to get into! Competition is fierce and selection is hard. Work hard, be passionate, keep fit, and live a balanced life with lots of interests. The balance and interests are important because astronauts are not only chosen for their specialized knowledge and excellent physical conditions, but also for their general mental balance and personality.