August 9, 2012
Some of the most colorful pictures of the space age have been taken, ironically, on the ground.
In the 1960s, U.S. Mercury and Gemini astronauts were sent to Nevada or Panama to brush up on their survival skills, on the theory that if their spacecraft ever went off course during re-entry, they might come down anywhere — jungle, ocean, or the middle of the Sahara — and would need to keep themselves alive until help arrived.
Although the astronauts took these exercises seriously, they also seemed to be having fun in their Lawrence of Arabia robes made of parachutes, especially when photographers were around.
The survival exercises have continued into the modern era, both in the United States and Russia. Cosmonauts periodically practice for survival in the harsh winter conditions that prevail over large parts of Russia. And at least once in their early training, they head into the desert near the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan to learn how to live by their wits and whatever emergency gear and other materials they can find in their spacecraft.
This week, a group of new cosmonauts (they were selected in 2010) is roughing it for two days in the desert, building shelters and learning to forage for food and water in 100-plus-degree weather. In the process, they’re expected to learn something about teamwork and problem-solving under stressful conditions — skills that should come in handy once they begin flying in space.
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