Qualification Exams

The crew of Expedition 31 sign their event simulation test cards in front of senior officials at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. April 23, 2012. (Credit: NASA)

For a cosmonaut crew to be certified for a Soyuz mission and International Space Station (ISS) expedition, they must pass several qualification exams at the end of their training. For certification as a Soyuz Flight Engineer and Visiting ISS Cosmonaut, applicants participate in five "quals." All of the exams are performed in the setting of simulations that evaluate proficiency in a number of operational scenarios.

The Russians have been using qualification exams to certify crews since the early days of their human space flight program. It is a formal and rigorous event. On the morning of a qual, the crew reports to the exam Commission prior to entering the simulator. There is a scripted dialogue exchanged between the crew commander and the head of the Commission. The crew is asked to select, sign, and date an exam envelope and then hand it back. A card inside the envelope (which the crew does not see) describes the scenario that will be played out during the sim. The scenario, of course, contains a number of malfunctions. An example from Bob Thirsk's, Soyuz qualification exam in 2005 listed the following contingencies and malfunctions:

  • failure of the prime VHF radio transmitter upon entry to orbit
  • failure of the rendezvous radar during approach to the Space Station
  • failure of the translation hand controller during final approach to the Station
  • depressurizaton of the Soyuz descent module following undocking from the Station
  • failure to initiate the emergency descent program
  • failure of the Soyuz main engine to shut down upon completion of the de-orbit burn

Each exam Commission consists of many examiners. For very important quals, the Commission included about 30 training department heads, systems experts from Energia (the prime contractor for the Soyuz and Russian segment of the ISS), and officials from the Cosmonaut Office. While the crew is performing in the simulators, every command that is issued and every word that is spoken is monitored. Even the crew's movements are observed as a means to assess their judgment and reaction times.

The exams are designed to stress the crew and always seem to end after a long day with a serious emergency situation. True to form, Thirsk's Space Station qual ended with a fire in the FGB (Functional Cargo Block). Bob and colleagues quickly donned gas masks, extinguished the simulated fire, and closed the hatches to protect the rest of the Station from the smoke.