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 2 – Under Pressure

10 05 2011

Today was even more incredible than yesterday.  (The camaraderie between those of us in Class #4 is developing as we learn more about one-another, and the time is flying by.)  The training is in all respects a dream-made-reality, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

So, alternating coursework and practical training during day two of the NASTAR Center’s Suborbital Scientist Training Program quickly sent us into one of the world’s most advanced machines.  This device, in turn, carried us quite literally right up to our bodies’ physical limits … and we were grinning all the way.

The NASTAR Center STS-400 "Phoenix" centrifuge.

The machine in question is a long-arm, multi-gimbal centrifuge: the Environmental Tectonics Corporation model AFTS-400.  NASTAR’s individual unit is called the “Phoenix.”

It’s objective?  -To provide the most realistic, intense, and accurate simulation of extreme, dynamic gravity that a person can experience while still sitting in a simulator.

The beautiful machine is deceptively large and amazingly quiet for its size and force.  -Massive enough to dim television sets in the area for blocks, (though the construction of an onsite electrical substation nipped that in the bud,) yet sophisticated enough to be able to reverse the drive motors during deceleration and use them as generators to dump nearly all of the “spinning” energy back into the power grid.  (Yes, I’m glancing at those of you who continue to insist that space isn’t or can’t be “green.”)

A view from inside the centrifuge bay.

As a person who has a distinct appreciation for large, finely-tuned mechanics, upon entering the centrifuge bay I was immediately reminded of the precision required of the motors and rigid arms supporting a mountaintop observatory.  The weight support and manipulation ability of those machines is truly inspiring.  However, whereas I would have described a giant telescope as having a placid, confident, almost Zen-master quality to it, the Phoenix seemed eager, hungry, and almost a bit restless, like it wanted to move.

And it did.

Our training here was broken up into two fundamental parts as we learned to experience (and the techniques to manage) g-forces along two planes with respect to our bodies: down our spines and straight into our backs.  Both of these sorts of accelerations come into play during spacecraft operations; we were taught to recognize them in kind so that we would know what to do during a normal profile when both types of g-forces are mixed together.

The Phoenix - really starting to move.

(I must also take a moment to specifically note and recognize Glenn King, whose excellent instruction, reassuring voice and extraordinary attention to detail let us know we were going to be just fine every step of the way.  Thanks, Glenn!)

We were each individually walked down from the observation area and out into the bay, where we were given a briefing on the centrifuge interior, components, displays, and communication systems.  Our seats were adjusted to suit us, and then we strapped in.

Once inside the centrifuge, it’s hard to not let your adrenaline get the better of you.  -And man, when that thing starts to move, it really means business.

The requisite "smashed face" shot.

The feeling of the g-forces is hard to describe unless you’ve done something like it before.  It feels like a completely even set of weights is distributed not uncomfortably across the surface of your entire body.  However, since there was nothing physically (mechanically) on top of you, the experience wasn’t at all like being smothered.  It just felt, to me at any rate, exactly like what it was – moving extremely quickly.

So, once inside, we experienced different strengths of force in different directions, working our techniques up to support us at the maximum intensity we would be feeling during tomorrow’s “full” flight, which we were told is based exactly on the flight profile of the SpaceShipOne as it went to space and back.

Afterward, we debriefed and performed some additional training relating to the logistics of attempting to perform six separate experiments (or objectives) within the confines of a single spacecraft with only a two-or-five-minute window of opportunity while the craft is beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.  Spacecraft providers take note: Total Chaos.  (Fortunately, we only lost a couple of trainees due to the impaling objects we were unable to get stowed by the time of re-entry…)

With that, and somewhat exhausted (though thrilled) from the day’s worth of physical training, we headed back to rest up prior to the “big flight” tomorrow.  More to follow…








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