Extreme-environment training for would-be astronauts

A hand-picked group of students, including several from EPFL, spent a grueling weekend at a space boot camp in Crans-Montana in the Swiss Alps. The would-be astronauts were preparing for the Asclepios space mission analog, run by EPFL student association Space@yourService.
Willem Suter is one of the would-be astronauts taking part the Asclepios mission. © EPFL / Emmanuel Barraud

First, they had to cut through the ice before slipping on a dry suit and entering one of the most extreme environments on Earth – the ice-cold water of a frozen lake. During the day and at night.

Last weekend, eight fearless students headed to Crans-Montana, high in the Swiss Alps, for the dive at Lake Moubra. The exercise was just one of several grueling activities at a boot camp organized by EPFL association Space@yourService as part of the Asclepios space mission analog.

A week in isolation
“We came up with the idea for the Asclepios mission in August 2019,” says Chloé Carrière, who runs the association. “We wanted to simulate a manned space mission to another celestial body, and to make it as realistic as possible.” The young team called in specialists to help, including Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier, French explorer Alban Michon and experts from the European Space Agency (ESA).

The simulated mission will take place in April this year, at an as yet undisclosed location in the Jura Mountains in Switzerland. Six budding astronauts will spend seven days isolated in a module that replicates the exact conditions inside a lunar or Martian habitat. As part of the mission, the team will carry out scientific experiments devised with input from EPFL, ETH Zurich, MIT and other leading universities.

Everyday life inside the module will be based on real-life NASA and ESA missions. The recruitment process was similarly realistic. “We never expected to get so many applications, and from so far away,” adds Chloé Carrière, who says she even received interest from Australia. One of the would-be astronauts who made it into the final team is from Chile.

Learning to improvise

The applicants underwent a series of knowledge, physical condition and mental toughness tests to space-agency standards. Of the 200 hopefuls who applied, just eight made the grade: six astronauts plus two reserves. At the camp in Crans-Montana, they were given a series of challenges that tested their ability to improvise in a complex environment, from building shelters and producing water to conducting blind rescues and living in a polar camp. The organizing team built a number of surprises into the schedule to see how well they could think on their feet – even after three days surviving on a diet of freeze-dried food. “Polar environments aren’t identical to the conditions you’d find in space, but there’s a lot of overlap,” says Michon. “Diving into a frozen lake was a chance for them to experience microgravity and the constraints of a full-body suit.”

For all the careful thought and planning that has gone into Asclepios, it’s still not a real-life mission, and there’s no guarantee that any of the hopefuls will one day end up in space. “They’re all still too young to apply to become ESA astronauts,” says Chloé. “But what they learn on this mission will undoubtedly serve them well in their future careers.”