NASTAR: Follow-up videos

1 11 2011

View of the Phoenix centrifuge simulator interior from the observation lounge.

For those interested in something a little more full-motion, I submit to you a quick post today pointing toward what civilian commercial scientist-astronaut training, (i.e., non-NASA) looks like.

Courtesy of Keith Cowing (of nasawatch.com, spaceref.com, and a phalanx of other space industry sites fame,) the video of our high-g centrifuge training at the NASTAR Center last May was recorded and uploaded as a live webcast (I’m second in the video).

NOTE: Because the video was recorded live, all commentary, hoots, hollars, and laughter is therefore uncensored and should be received in that light.

Click here for the archived webcast. (Be advised – the video is long!)

Each participant in the video takes three “flights” on a SpaceShipOne-style craft simulator built into a state-of-the-art centrifuge.  The first of these simulations is performed at 50% power, and the second two are at 100%, enabling trainees to experience exactly what the pilots of SpaceShipOne experienced on their way to space.

Video of the exterior of the simulator during a “run” may also be found here, while a view of the display inside the simulator during a run may be seen here.

It was a blast!  (I blogged the experience starting here.)  So, for the curious, enjoy the video, and many thanks to Keith for archiving this for posterity!

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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.





NASTAR: Day 1 – Sky High

9 05 2011

[[NOTE: I apologize for the 1-day lag.  It’s also finals week in grad school.]]

Today was truly extraordinary – the training more utilitarian than I could have imagined.  I’m still attempting to process it all.

Watching an ETC centrifuge spin test.

The day began with general introductions and a tour of the NASTAR Center along with the extensive onsite manufacturing facilities (housed and operated by parent company, the Environmental Tectonics Corporation).  There’s no place like this in the world, and that’s the very reason that they manufacture and deliver centrifuges and pressure chambers to customers all over the world.

For starters, why centrifuges, pressure chambers, and aerospace?  The link is fairly simple – in the case of a centrifuge it’s to simulate the force of traveling in a high-performance jet aircraft or spacecraft without actually having to sit in one; in the case of a pressure chamber, it’s to simulate the effects of extreme high altitude while leaving both feet on the ground.

NASTAR does both.  And today, we were going to dive straight into the latter.

NASTAR Center's hypobaric chamber.

After a bit of classroom training, we began our practical education in physiological effects of oxygen deprivation experienced at an extraordinary altitude, like 25,000 feet.

At such an elevation, (which is not quite as high as cresting Mt. Everest, but close,) there is not enough ambient oxygen to adequately supply the brain.  If the brain runs out of oxygen, it begins to shut down higher-function systems, until eventually one passes out (see: hypoxia)… and if not returned to an oxygenated environment quickly, passes out for good.

Well, why worry about the ambient environment if you’re going to be inside a spacecraft?  -In case something goes wrong, either with the on-board life support system or with the integrity of the spacecraft seal.  You need to know how to recognize the sometimes subtle and confusing symptoms of oxygen starvation in yourself so that you can quickly react, get yourself on supplemental oxygen, and figure out what the problem is.

Pre-"ascent" preparations inside the hypobaric chamber.

So, as we graduated from the classroom portion of the morning, we were thoroughly trained on the oxygen supply system, (the very same system used by the civilian astronaut pilots during the SpaceShipOne flights, I might add,) and then we entered the chamber.

Unexpectedly, this act of simply entering the pressure vessel felt something like psychological training for entering a real spacecraft.  You knew going in that you were going to be sealed into a higher-risk situation, where they were going to actually pump the atmosphere out around you.  This wasn’t a test or a computer program.

By going in, you were committing your physical body to a very real experience.  The training you’d just been attending was of specific importance, or else you could get into serious trouble by misusing equipment, hand signals, commands, etc.

It was exciting, a little alarming, and very, very real.  No do-overs.  (It begged me to ask myself the question, “In today’s “feel-good” world, how often is this type of practical test – one with physical consequences – seen anymore?”)

Two training-mates pass the time while breathing pure oxygen prior to going to full altitude.

Safety was made first priority, all life-support and communication systems were double-checked, and we were briefed repeatedly prior to beginning.  Then, the hatch was sealed, and began the exercise, which was executed in phases to allow our bodies to purge nitrogen and avoid the “bends,” or decompression sickness.  The chamber creaked like a submarine as the pressure inside was slowly lowered to the equivalent of tens of thousands of feet higher elevation, and then we took our masks off.

The results?  I’m quite pleased to report that jazz trombone actually appears to have more specific applicability to aerospace than I ever conceived.  Whereas most begin to feel the onset of hypoxia effects in 2-3 minutes, I made it a full 9 minutes and eleven-seconds without any serious side-effects before the instructors shrugged and told me to put my mask back on(!).

I'll be honest. I've been waiting a lifetime to learn these oxygen regulator systems...

(I should note that many of my classmates also exhibited seemingly superhuman oxygen-deprivation tolerance. I’ll have to check whether or not any of them are also musicians…)

We were brought back down to local pressure without incident, and everyone came out with a better sense of how their own bodies react to being oxygen deprived so they will recognize it later.

As for me?  I didn’t lose color vision, motor coordination, or experience tingling or numbness as others do, but I started feeling the marked “need” to take deep breaths, (which not all do,) slight dizziness, and my attention to detail began to drift.  -In all, extraordinarily useful details to know when faced with an emergency scenario.

To cap the day’s events, the need for a spacesuit was driven home by a rather fantastic (and frankly horrifying) in-person pressure demonstration that I won’t ruin for those considering attending on their own.  Suffice to say, when I make my first space flight, I’ll be sure it’s from a provider that makes a pressure suit part of their standard package.

(Of course, no spacecraft is designed for its occupants to need a pressure suit during planned suborbital flights.  It’s the unplanned events – and the old Eagle Scout in me – that make me want to be prepared just in case.)

We’ve all been energized by the day’s events, and it seems none of us can really wait for the g-force centrifuge training tomorrow.  More to follow…








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