As a NASA scientist and veteran of three shuttle flights, Mario Runco has some advice for all you would-be astronauts out there: Enjoy the view, don’t get distracted by taking a lot of pictures and don’t get hung up on doing zero-gravity somersaults, chasing errant M&Ms and other “stupid astronaut tricks.”
To which one could add: Don’t miss the whole experience because you passed out on the flight up. In other words, before you enter the weird and wonderful world of weightlessness, make sure you can handle the heavy Gs you’ll face in getting there.
That, at least, is the premise of Sub-orbital Space Flight Training, a two-day program at the National AeroSpace Training and Research Center (NASTAR) in Southampton, Pa. Combining class time and simulated flights in a centrifuge, participants learn how to manage high G-forces and, hopefully, avoid the inconvenient condition known as G-LOC (pronounced “gee-lock”), or G-force induced Loss of Consciousness.
The centrifuge rides, it turns out, mirror the flight profile developed for Virgin Galactic’s proposed flights. For those considering that $200,000 experience, the NASTAR program (at $6,000) isn’t required, but it’s probably not a bad idea.
“It’s a good try-before-you-buy program,” said Josh Bush, vice president of Park Avenue Travel, who went through the program himself and markets Virgin Galactic’s flights as an Accredited Space Agent. “You can experience space without leaving the ground.”
It all takes place in an industrial park outside Philadelphia. Surrounded by auto-body shops and manufacturing plants, the place looks like just another warehouse — at least until you walk inside and find yourself looking at various flight simulators, hyperbaric chambers and at least one ejection-seat module. (NASTAR is a subsidiary of Environmental Tectonics Corp., which provides equipment and training for military pilots, disaster-management crews and other professionals.)
But for would-be astronauts, the heart of the operation is Training Bay 2, where a 12-ton centrifuge with a 25-foot arm cradles a one-seat, cockpit-like gondola. Its sheer size is almost overwhelming, especially when you find out it’ll spin you up to 3.5 Gs in about 15 seconds.
But first, there’s a little classwork on human physiology, G-forces and spatial disorientation, for example, what happens — and, more to the point, what you’d prefer didn’t happen — when you blast off into space. According to Greg Kennedy, NASTAR’s director of educational services, “It’s all about learning to operate in an environment we’re not built for.”
As it turns out, that environment includes, not just one type of G-force, but two: Gx, the chest-to-back force that feels like there’s an elephant sitting on your chest and Gz, the head-to-toe force that pushes your blood to your lower body and robs your brain of oxygen (hello G-LOC).
Put them together, as in the Virgin Galactic flight profile, and you get the dizzying double whammy of 3.5 Gx and 3.5 Gz during the launch sequence, plus another 6 Gx upon re-entry. (In space, passengers would spend the intervening five minutes in zero-gravity weightlessness, which, alas, the centrifuge can’t recreate.)
Although the Gx maxes out higher, it’s the Gz you really want to watch out for as it can lead to tunnel vision, “graying out” (i.e., loss of color vision) and, if not controlled, the dreaded G-LOC. To avoid that unpleasant prospect, NASTAR instructors teach the same anti-G straining maneuver (AGSM) that fighter pilots use to stay conscious at high G-forces.
The maneuver is simple and effective. Basically, it entails flexing the muscles of your lower body to prevent blood from pooling in your legs and so-called “hook” breathing, which effectively closes your throat in order to keep that blood from draining out of your head.
“Your body is really an incredible system,” said Kennedy. “We’re just providing techniques to help it do what it needs to do.”
Prepare for launch
For some participants, the techniques serve another, unstated purpose: Taking your mind off the fact that you’re about to climb into a capsule the size of a Smart car and get spun around at nearly 50 mph. Upstairs, in an observation room, your fellow travelers get to watch through closed-circuit TV as a technician straps you in, runs through a pre-launch checklist and leaves you to think about what you’ve signed up for.
And then, a voice fills the capsule — “Firing sequence in 3, 2, 1” — and, instantly, you’re pressed into your seat, trying to remember to breathe (“hook”), flex your muscles and not get freaked out as the edges of your vision go gray and blurry. In short order, the G-forces slacken; the simulated windows show the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth, and you realize that those who are going to make the real trip are in for one heck of an experience.
Practice makes perfect
Having recently gone through the training, Marc Hagle is among those who sees its value. Originally from Newburgh, N.Y., he moved to Orlando when he was 8, just in time to see the launch of America’s space program firsthand. “Vanguard, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo — I watched them all,” he said, setting the seed for a lifelong interest in space.
Today, he’s No. 40 on the Virgin Galactic passenger list and the NASTAR program represents something of a test ride/insurance policy. “I was surprised by the effects gravity has on the body,” he said after several spins around the training bay. “Although you hear about it, you don’t really understand it until you experience it.”
Which, of course, is the idea. “It’s all about helping you be better prepared for the [real] experience,” said Kennedy. “You can say, ‘I’ve done this, I know what to expect.’ That should ratchet down the anxiety level.”
And, presumably, the likelihood of G-LOC and what could be considered a most-unpleasant long-term effect. “You don’t want to spend $200,000,” said Bush, “and miss the whole thing.”