Future space passengers are getting a leg up on appreciating the physiological rigors of suborbital spaceflight they plan to take in the future, but without leaving the Earth. Using state-of-the-art equipment, the National Aerospace Training and Research Center (NASTAR Center) in Southampton, Pa., is helping to train both the pilots and prospective passengers of commercial spaceliners.
The NASTAR Center is a wholly owned subsidiary of Environmental Tectonics Corp. and houses an array of training devices, including a specialized high-performance human centrifuge. Known as the Space Training System-400, the centrifuge mimics the flight dynamics and sustained Gs of a rocket-powered flight to the edge of space, while providing a realistic view from the simulated cockpit windows. Along with G-force exposure, center facilities make available to patrons altitude exposure, spatial disorientation and other physiological effects they will encounter as they enter the space environment.
Major changes in technology — not only in computing power but also in visual display systems — have transformed the training simulator experience over the years, said Glenn King, the NASTAR Center's chief operating officer and a chief instructor at the facility.
"Those old trainers of the past were just a little box that spun about, pulled by bellows and cables," King said. Today, electrical and computer power, along with high motion control algorithms can position training hardware quickly and very dynamically, giving pilots very accurate feelings of flight, he told Space News.
Along with handling space travel training, King said the center supports a variety of military and civil aviation needs, making use of highly modular equipment and programs. "We've invested anywhere between $25 million to $40 million in this facility and are privately funded. We receive no funds from the U.S. government or outside sources. We've funded it ourselves," he said.
Serious people, serious money
The emerging commercial space travel business is a real market to service, King noted. "There are serious people out there with serious money. This is going to happen," he said, pointing particularly to the ongoing work at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., and that firm's building of the passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwo suborbital system.
Training at the NASTAR Center is an integral part of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company, which was bankrolled by the U.K. billionaire to create the world's first commercial spaceline based on SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier/drop plane. Seats are selling for $200,000 each.
Dozens of Virgin Galactic spaceflight customers — known as "founders" — have trained at the NASTAR Center for their SpaceShipTwo suborbital encounters.
"We began our NASTAR program last year to help test our hypothesis that at least 80 percent of adults were capable of flying to space from a medical and psychological point of view," said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic in an e-mail response to a Space News inquiry.
Whitehorn said that during the fall of 2007 more than 80 paid-up founder astronauts, including himself and Sir Richard Branson, made simulated SpaceShipTwo flights, with a visual simulation of going to space as part of the NASTAR experience. That flight profile involved a span ranging from 3.5 Gs, that pushes a person's back against their seat, to 6 Gs, that drives an individual down into their seat.
"We discovered that over 94 percent of adults are capable of coping with this level of G force, including individuals with a medical condition, provided these were properly understood and accounted for," Whitehorn said.
Whitehorn declined to discuss the pricing for the training, but in an e-mail he said: "There is a product being developed now to give the undecided potential customers the chance to have a centrifuge experience and we will be announcing the price shortly."
"By giving people that sell seats a direct experience of what the flight will feel like, we have given them the confidence to help potential astronauts understand the experience," Whitehorn said.
The more prepared a person is for the physical and mental demands of a flight, the better, agreed Jane Reifert, president of Incredible Adventures Inc., based in Sarasota, Fla. Her group offers a range of adventure tour packages, including space training and travel experiences.
"Customers need prior experience of high-g and zero-g in order to be capable of fully relaxing and enjoying their space flight," Reifert said. "You don't want someone who's spent $200,000 or more for a suborbital flight to be too nervous or nauseous to enjoy the view. You also don't want to be the passenger sitting next to someone who becomes violently ill or suffers a panic attack at 300,000 feet," she told Space News in an e-mail.
NASTAR's King took note of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) role in developing guidelines for commercial space crew and passenger training. "They are taking a hands-off approach at this point in time. I understand their position and their oversight to give the commercial space traveler a safe environment. If you start putting regulations out, it would stifle the industry at this point. It's just too early."
Keeping that hands-off approach for a few more years is King's advice. "Let the dust settle and we'll figure out what we're doing. Let the industry self-regulate right now. So far that's the FAA approach. They've put out guidelines ... but haven't mandated them to actual regulations. Let's not put out regulations before we see the data," he said.
For one, there are several variations of suborbital spaceships now being designed, King added. "Each one will have its own set of criteria for crew training and passenger training. It's going to be very difficult for the FAA to set up a generic mandate for all the different carriers to comply with," he explained.
Last month, the center began offering two-hour, half-day, full-day and two-day-combo programs that simulate space voyages, as well as jet flights. Dubbed the Air and Space Adventure Programs, the cost per participant is anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, King said, for one-day and two-day programs. "People can come in and get a taste of space."
What if a person finds out they are not space travel worthy? King said the center can work with that individual to learn countermeasures such as anti-G training maneuvers or breathing techniques. "All those things that we've taught fighter pilots for years ... we transfer that directly to the space travelers."
Akin to the evolution of aviation, King senses that commercial space travel will become a very routine enterprise. "There will be some hiccups and bumps along the road. But eventually, it will settle down into a regular commercial endeavor," he concluded.
For more information on the National Aerospace Training & Research Center (NASTAR Center), go to: http://www.nastarcenter.com/.