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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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…





T-minus 1 week: Aiming for NASTAR

2 05 2011

The NASTAR Center. (Credit: NASTAR)

I’m coming up on a positively Everest-ian milestone in my ongoing quest to become a commercial astronaut, and it’s been a long time coming:  Astronaut training.

Supported by my spaceflight consulting firm, Astrowright Spaceflight Consulting LLC, I’m heading out in a week to attend highly specialized training offered by the only FAA-certified civilian spaceflight training outfit around.

The location?  Philadelphia, PA, at the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center.

NASTAR simulator-centrifuge. (Credit: NASTAR)

Among the NASTAR Center’s many aerospace services, not only do they provide generalized spaceflight training for the many civilian tourist “spaceflight participants” who are planning sub-orbital jaunts in the next couple of years, (e.g., on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft,) but they also offer specific sub-orbital scientist training designed to prepare researchers to withstand the forces and avoid the distractions of spaceflight so that they can do what they’ve been wanting to do for (at least in my case) an entire career:

Perform quality science off-world.

For a taste of what the training is like, (which was developed in part by SwRI and NSRC civilian scientist-astronaut forerunner Dr. Alan Stern,) check out this excellent article written by Space.com contributor Clara Moskowitz, where she chronicles her experiences attending the program last October.

In addition to more traditional classroom instruction, the program involves thrilling (to me, anyway) “right stuff” rigors, such as oxygen deprivation training, high g-force (centrifuge) simulations of spacecraft launch and re-entry, and an array of supplemental components.

Needless to say, this training will help to round out our firm’s technical expertise so that we can begin offering expanded service beyond our current pre-flight fitness training and radiation dosimetry services into full-fledged (atmospheric) microgravity and sub-orbital payload specialist territory.

Many thanks to the family and friends that have helped me to get to this point, and it goes without saying that I’ll be blogging like a maniac as I head through the program.  Expect more on this in about a week.

T-minus 168 hours and counting…








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