NASTAR: Day 3 – The Full Monty

11 05 2011

View of the NASTAR Center's Phoenix centrifuge simulator interior from the observation lounge.

[[Again, apologies for the delay on getting this one out!]]

It’s hard to believe the last day has already come and gone.  This program was worth everything it took to get here, from the fundraising and the family support (thanks, guys!) to the late-night flights and the headaches, (juggling finals for grad school comes to mind…)  Trust me, it delivered.

Entrance to the Phoenix centrifuge simulator, retrofitted as the STS-400.

So, though it was basically impossible to get any sleep last night, the morning came early enough.  After a quick continental breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and blasted on over to the NASTAR Center for our early morning briefing prior to our “full monty” flights. 

These centrifuge “flights” were to be very different from the training experiences we had yesterday, which delivered to us only forces in specific directions, (i.e., pressing us either straight down or straight back into our chairs.)  Today’s simulations, on the other hand, were forged directly from the cockpit sensors of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne flights and would include a mix of forces – the mix of forces.  -The actual forces you feel when launching out of the atmosphere. 

View of the STS-400 simulator cockpit display as seen projected in the observation lounge.

That’s something that was difficult for me to wrap my head around.  This is what an exo-atmospheric launch really feels like, and it includes the extreme forces felt at both launch and re-entry. 

(What goes up must come down, after all… unless you reach escape velocity, that is.)

The morning coursework was brief, and the anticipation was palpable as we made our way to the observation lounge to cheer on our training-mates for these full-scale centrifuge simulations.  In large part, since we first stepped through the complex doors, the entire NASTAR program had  been aiming for this moment.  One-by-one, we were then led into the centrifuge bay as the others looked on. 

I imagine the experience here provides a mild sense of what it must feel like to take that final walk down the gangway, scaffold, or corridor to your waiting spacecraft.  Even though I knew that this was a simulation, the simple fact that the forces are real was incentive enough to get the body’s adrenal system ramping up to full speed.

View of NASTAR's Phoenix from the observation lounge.

Upon climbing into the simulator, I received a brief safety and communications briefing, the seat was ergonomically adjusted, and I strapped into my five-point harness.  Before I had much time to let it all settle, I was latched inside and the interior lights blinked off. 

A subtle hum as the centrifuge began to idle gave the simulator a very real sense that it was a “living” spacecraft, and the only illumination in the cabin was now emanating from my forward display.  Along with an array of indicators and dials, the viewscreen in front of me projected a photorealistic vista of the desert southwest from an altitude of 50,000 feet. 

Looming above me, the undercarriage of a WhiteKnightTwo-type mothership swayed ever-so-slightly as we circled, waiting for clearance to drop.  A pleasant sounding voice, (which I was later told was provided by a woman named Susan,) then counted down from five, and with a quick jolt, we (my spacecraft and I) detatched from the mothership and began plummeting through the sky.

Moments before liftoff... (or air-drop, as the case may be.)

After only a couple of additional seconds to find the pit of my stomach and prepare for the imminent event, the voice again counted down to rocket ignition.  -And let me tell you, when that motor snapped on, it was a kick in the pants like nothing you’ve ever felt.

With a splitting crack and a roar, I was stomped back into my seat with every ounce of what I’d come to expect from a spacecraft rocket launch.  As the craft pitched upward and accelerated away from Earth, I found myself instinctively engaging the gravity countermeasure techniques that I learned in the previous’ days training – a purely reactive move to keep my wits about me.  Then, in a surprisingly short period of time, the blue out front faded to black and the engine cut out.

Accompanying a soothing sort of silence, the g-forces eased off completely, and the glowing limb of the Earth slid into view amongst a sea of beaming (not twinkling!) stars. 

Congratulations.  You’re officially off the rock.

Even though I knew it was a simulation, there’s something about going through the complete process that’s honestly fairly emotional.  This is as close to doing the real thing as you can get.

So, for the scientist, there ‘s a trick with a suborbital flight as opposed to an orbital flight, which is that you only get a few minutes of weightlessness in space before you have to strap back in for re-entry.  -Many don’t realize that these suborbital spacecraft aren’t going fast enough to make full orbit and are instead only designed for short “hops” out of the atmosphere.  Doing so is much more cost-effective and technically simpler than going into full orbit, but any science you intend to perform, therefore, must be performed immediately and flawlessly.  -You only get one shot.

Now, I hadn’t brought along any official sort of experiment to perform during the simulation, but not wanting to waste the opportunity, I squeezed in a tongue-in-cheek learning experience.  In what I intended to be a rough approximation of an experiment requiring fine motor skills and some creative thought, I carried my phone along in my flightsuit and attempted to bang out a quick tweet from apogee (the highest point before the spacecraft began its descent.)  This wasn’t as easy as it seemed.  I made it – (you can find it on my Twitter feed @bwmcgee as the last tweet on May 11th) – but I unexpectedly lost precious time and wouldn’t have made it if I’d been planning to cut it close. 

Why the unintended close call?  After all was said-and-done, and after all of the g-tolerance training and the pressure breathing techniques, it was adrenaline that I found to be my biggest problem.  This was an intense experience.  Frankly, I was excited.  And even though I felt completely under control, my fingers were trembling; it cost precious seconds to correct inadvertant typos. 

My recommendation is that relaxation techniques should be included in future training.  I definitely plan to give adrenaline-mitigation some extra thought in the future.

All-too-soon, the pleasant voice came back on to announce that re-entry was beginning.  Re-entry is actually one of the most forceful parts of the flight, which is fairly counterintuitive and isn’t very well communicated to the public (in my opinion).  Distilled succintly, consider that when someone slams on the brakes, a person is (familiarly) crushed forward against a car’s seatbelt.  Now, imagine a person to be sitting backwards in the seat when the driver suddenly brakes – he or she will be forced backwards against their backs (the very premise of rearward-facing child car-seats).  Now, imagine that the car is actually a spacecraft moving at thousands of miles an hour, and the act of “braking” is the process of the spacecraft slamming into the Earth’s (essentially) stopped atmosphere.  Your back in this case is pressed into the spacecraft with shocking force.

In all, while surprisingly intense, the heaviest g-forces don’t last for more than a few seconds, and the experience is quite manageable.

As quickly as it all began, my spacecraft returned to aerodynamic flight for  (presumably) a smooth glide landing.  A gentle shove upward from the spacecraft let me know that its wings were once again generating lift, and the pleasant voice welcomed me home (“astronaut”).  Then the lights blinked back on. 

Time to get out.  Alas.

NASTAR suborbital scientist-astrounaut program graduates, milling about the centrifuge after being "pinned" with their wings.

After everyone was finished with their full simulations, and after cheers-and-high-fives-aplenty were exchanged, we engaged in a debriefing where we shared our thoughts and suggestions with the staff.  This appeared to me to have been a very productive meeting, the fruit from which I imagine we’ll see in the coming months and years. 

The debriefing was followed by an awards ceremony in the centrifuge bay next to the Phoenix, where we were each presented our NASTAR wings.  I’m pleased to report that everyone in Suborbital Scientist Class #4 passed exceptionally. 

It was particularly exciting for me, looking at my training-mates who each appeared to stand a little taller, (even if only due to our spinal columns having been spread out under high-g,) to note that many if not each of my classmates will likely have flown into space (becoming true astronauts)  in the next few years. 

We each were standing amongst the pioneers of a new chapter in spaceflight, and I consider myself quite fortunate to have been able to take part. 

Honestly, the rest of the day quickly became a blur of rental cars and freeways and airports… and I haven’t yet really had the opportunity to process it all.  I found the whole experience, human and technical, to be wildly educational.  No doubt there will be more revelations to come.

…but first, I have to finish my term papers.  It’s finals week at North Dakota, and there’s no rest for the wicked.

Thank you, loyal (and new) readers, for joining me as I took one small step *ahem* closer to getting off the rock!  With any luck, this is only a taste of things to come. 

Ad astra, friends.





Why try to become an astronaut / astrowright?

27 08 2010

 

Two NASA astronauts participate in construction and maintenance activities on the International Space Station; May 21, 2010. (Credit: NASA)

When I reveal what my professional aspirations really are, I get this question a lot.  -More than most would probably imagine.

What with the risks and the trials, the personal expense and the unknowns, why seriously work to venture into a frontier where so many of the necessities of life are nonexistent?

Sure, people talk and joke about being an astronaut when they grow up, but if-and-when one really considers going – when forced to really, seriously consider the realities of space travel in the modern era – people shy away.

The thought can be frightening.  It’s new.  For the most part, human space exploration is still in its infancy, and there are considerable (and likely unconsidered) risks.

Beyond the necessity of riding a controlled explosion out of the atmosphere, so much of what we take for granted, like air, water, food, atmospheric pressure, warmth…  It must all be taken with you.  Emphasizing the point, one of my closest friends (and a fellow astrophysics student at the University of Wyoming at the time) used to call me crazy for even considering leaving the comforts of planet Earth.  It definitely wasn’t for him.

So, for the sake of what is perhaps only a little introspective clarity, here it is:  Why do I want to leave?

Basically, I feel a compulsion toward the unknown.  While the dark, foreboding abyss beyond our current understanding and knowledge is terrifying to many (most?) of us, there’s another way to look at the coin.   For while the unknown may harbor risks and dangers, the unknown is also a place where anything is possible.  That’s where the discoveries are made.

The sensation of true discovery, (which admittedly I’ve only gotten a taste of once or twice,) is particularly intoxicating to me.  I don’t want to spend my life reading about others forging into the unknown; I want to be there, where the action is, where new history is being made.

Striking off into the blank spaces of our knowledge and experience, surprises are in store.  -And in a word made so much smaller by our mastery of global communication and connectedness, where so much in life is now predictable, surprises are a rare thrill.

I’ve had enough of studying what other have studied before, seeing what countless others have seen before.  For science, for posterity, for enhancing our understanding, and for sheer, personal desire, I want to be one of the ones to set human eyes on things for the first time.

A new life and everything that comes with it awaits above – new politics and policy, new science and new commerce, new challenges and victories – it is all ready and waiting for us to arrive to experience it.

That, my compatriots, is why I want to get off the rock.

I invite you to join me.





Dawn of the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut

14 05 2010

For those of you who have known me a while, who have had to endure my many rants during the last decade-and-a-half about the future and the promise of corporate space exploration, I have four words:

I told you so.

It’s with an almost electric sense of expectation that I am pleased to report a change in the tide of space exploration.  It’s a change that history has never seen before.  -With the advent of private spacecraft, (e.g., Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace,) a critical mass must be near or already achieved, because suddenly the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut has taken shape.  Companies are stepping up to provide training, and pioneers are filling out the flight suits I hope to one day wear.  It’s thrilling.

FAA approved centrifuge training. Credit: NASTAR Center

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has recently awarded safety approval to a private firm to offer astronaut training – known as the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center, it’s the first of its kind.  Their services include centrifuges, hyperbaric chambers, technical training, and custom flight simulators, and they’re state-of-the-art.

Then, there’s Starfighters, Inc. – the first company of its kind to get both the FAA and NASA’s approval to provide live suborbital training to corporate astronaut-hopefuls using a small fleet of F-104 Starfigher jet aircraft.

Suborbital flight training. Credit: Starfighters, Inc.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit applied research and development organization, has started taking advantage of these training opportunities for its own scientists to prepare for the new corporate space opportunities as they arise.  Dr. Daniel Durda, one of the first SwRI scientists to participate, says, “We’re finally arriving at the day when space scientists can conduct their research ‘in the field’ in the same way that botanists, geologists and oceanographers have been doing all along. We hope many of our fellow researchers and educators in the diverse disciplines that will benefit from frequent access to space will also get in line to fly.”

IS3 spacesuit. Credit: Orbital Outfitters

And, then there’s the Astronauts4Hire initiative – with a collection of young up-and-coming space scientists vying to get their training at the aforementioned facilities sponsored so that they too can “get in line to fly.”  They’re marketing themselves as burgeoning commercial suborbital payload specialists, the idea being that when companies/universities/etc. want to perform suborbital research using the new spacecraft around the corner, it’ll be cheaper to hire these guys than to train and certify their own staff for spaceflight.  -I think it’s a fantastic idea.  Heck, I’d be jazzed to sign up with them one day if the opportunity arose.

The market is so ripe that company Orbital Outfitters, a private spacesuit manufacturer, has formed to offer standardized “get me down” spacesuits to supply suborbital researchers.  Known as the Industrial Suborbital Spacesuit, or IS^3, the suit provides at least 30 minutes of emergency life support at at an altitude of 90 miles and offers imbedded communication equipment and biometric sensors, enhanced visibility, and can even be integrated into a parachute harness.

The future is now, and it looks like my dream of becoming a corporate astronaut is more realistic than ever.  All I have to do is find the right way to get my foot in the door…. er, airlock.








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