Civilians may soon be able to take space trips, with companies like Virgin Galactic and Armadillo Aerospace developing spacecraft that would offer brief tours just shy of Earth orbit.
To prepare themselves for the day they can make a suborbital journey, eight people including an aspiring astronaut are undergoing centrifuge and altitude chamber tests this week as part of a three-day course at the National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Pa.
"The course is geared for researchers professors and grad students to understand and design experiments for suborbital spaceflight," said Brienna Henwood, director of NASTAR's Space Training and Research Programs. "Suborbital spaceflight hasn't actually happened yet, but it is emerging."
Most of the eight trainees for this week's Suborbital Scientist's Training program are research scientists at U.S. universities. One participant has applied to join the European astronaut corps.
NASTAR, owned by a Pennsylvania company, Environmental Tectonics Corp., is charging $3,000 per person for the three-day program, during which the trainees will learn techniques to manage the physiological and psychological strain of spaceflight. NASTAR's first course for suborbital scientists was in January.
Participants ride on a centrifuge simulator that will cause them to experience up to 6 Gs, or six times the normal force of gravity, mimicking the stresses they would feel during launch and landing. They also undergo altitude training in a hypobaric chamber that will slowly decrease air pressure, simulating conditions at 18,000 feet altitude.
During these and other exercises, the trainees become familiar with how their bodies respond and will work to make the most of the spaceflight experience. A special distraction exercise teaches the scientists how to pay attention to their experiments and get work done during the precious four minutes or so of microgravity that a suborbital spaceflight would afford.
Suborbital spaceflights, when they become available, will provide civilian researchers with their first chance to conduct their own experiments in space. While many science projects are already taken up to the International Space Station, they are being conducted by astronauts on behalf of researchers. And while civilians can board commercial zero-G flights, which fly in parabolic arcs, those flights provide only moments of weightlessness, not enough time to get science done.
"This is the first time that if you had some sort of science experiment, and you need to flip a switch or need to recalibrate and readjust the experiment, these people will be able to do that themselves," Henwood told Space.com.
Both Virgin Galactic and Armadillo Aerospace's spacecraft are still under development. Once they begin flying, tourists are expected to be charged about $200,000 by the former company, and $102,000 by the latter.
Space.com reporter Clara Moskowitz has been invited to join the NASTAR training program this week. She'll be posting updates about her experience on Space.com's Facebook page.