One of the most enjoyable parts of the astronaut selection process is a group discussion.
In 1995, 572 astronaut applicants were narrowed down to 125 based on their resumes and English scores, then down to 48 based on paper exams and brief medical checks. These 48 candidates went through a week of comprehensive medical checks and job interviews.
At the end of this exhausting week, candidates were grouped into several teams. Each team was given a task of planning a certain search and rescue operation on a virtual remote island. As the group almost agreed on a rescue plan, the examiners threw in challenging situations to stir things up. The purpose of this discussion is to judge the characteristics and the talents of each applicant, whether he or she has a certain level of leadership and followership as a professional astronaut.
Although this was a part of the screening process, we enjoyed it a lot. Our bond later brought us to create a mailing-list when the selection stages were over, so we could continue discussing various aspects of space exploration over tons of email exchanges.
One such discussion was to consider sending a manned deep sea submersible SHINKAI 6500 to Europa, the moon of Jupiter.
Built in 1989, SHINKAI 6500 is one of the most sophisticated manned deep sea submersible. Takeshi Naganuma, one of the applicants, used to dive with SHINKAI for a deep sea biology. He proposed to NASDA at the job interview to send SHINKAI to Europa ocean for searching for extraterrestrial life. We then checked the size and weight of SHINKAI and compared them to the capabilities of the Space Shuttle.
Looking at the data sent from NASA spacecrafts, planetary scientists believe Europa has a subsurface ocean, warmed up by strong tidal force of Jupiter. Naganuma believes that there may be some primordial form of extraterrestrial life based on tidal heat. His dream was to dive into the Europa ocean for the search of such organisms.
Absurd ideas? Not feasible? But the dimensions of SHINKAI miraculously matches with the cargo bay of the Shuttle. Put aside the protection and container mechanisms, transportation systems, navigation, logistics, etc etc... but the Shuttle is _capable_ of launching SHINKAI into the low Earth orbit!
Then we dreamed about docking SHINKAI with some sort of efficient transportation systems in the orbit, somehow navigating all the way to Jupiter. We dreamed about penetrating thick layers of ice on the surface of Europa with heat generators. Then considered possible exploration options of SHINKAI to dive into the deep sea of Europa.
Seriously, sending a series of robotic explorers to Europa would be a much more feasible option. Robots do not consume air, water, nor foods. Nor do they need to get back to Earth. We don't yet know about all of the dangers on Europa. SHINKAI is not designed for long duration space flights. But it is this kind of sense of wonder which drives humankind's imagination for exploration.
In the end, we weren't selected as astronauts. Ouch!
But we still love lively discussions on space explorations.
And dreaming about space as a team.