Red-Letter Day: NASA Astronauts wanted; NSRC spaceflight giveaway

15 11 2011

Today has been quite a big day for aspiring astronauts:

NASA Seeks New Wave of Astronauts

Prototypical astronauts Tom Stafford and Alan Shepard Jr. studying a mission chart, Dec 1965. (Credit: NASA)

On one hand, NASA finally opened another selection announcement for the next class of astronauts.  Until the end of January 2012, anyone with the grit, drive, and the moxie to put their hat in the ring will be stacked up against the best of the best for a handful of new astronaut positions.

Contrary to what many believe in the post-Shuttle NASA environment, what awaits these future spacefarers is more than just maintaining the International Space Station, showing up at press appearances, and performing (much needed) education public outreach.  …NASA is also hard at work, developing a new, Apollo-style spacecraft intended for deep space missions (Orion MPCV) while exploring the possibility of using it to visit and explore near-Earth asteroids.

-Not to mention that these new astronauts will also be on the cusp of helping to break open a new era of commercial spaceflight.  (For more information on the many developments there, see CCDev to get started.)

Not a bad time to get involved, all things considered.

Spaceflight Giveaway for Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher

The XCOR Lynx suborbital vehicle. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

As if that weren’t excitement enough for the day, on the commercial spaceflight front, the Southwest Research Institute announced a partnership with XCOR Aerospace to offer a free suborbital spaceflight to one exceedingly lucky attendee at the next Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference (NSRC)!

That’s right, a research seat in a spacecraft may be yours for the cost of attending and participating in the conference, slated for the end of February 2012.  The only obligations of the winner are to find their own way to the waiting spacecraft and create and provide an experiment for the trip.

The NSRC, the third conference of its kind, brings together commercial spaceflight industry pioneers, regulators, and both private and federal researchers to explore the opportunities and possibilities presented by the many private suborbital spacecraft currently in development.

For more info, visit nsrc.swri.org – and sign up!  (I can speak from personal experience: the conference last year was thrilling to those for whom spaceflight and microgravity research holds an appeal.)

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Future SwRI astronauts stomp on the accelerator

26 08 2011

SwRI's suborbital science mission patch. (Credit: SwRI)

A quick note today on the further development of the worlds’ first commercial scientist-astronauts!  The Southwest Research Institute‘s (SwRI) suborbital research program, after its stunning announcement last spring of the purchase of several research seats on upcoming suborbital spaceflights, is showing no signs of slowing.

Recently, after their three commercial scientist-astronauts-in-training, (specifically termed payload specialists,) completed basic astronaut training, they announced the release of their project mission patch (at left).

I’m not sure if anyone else feels the same way, but I’ll be brave enough to admit that something as technically irrelevant as a patch can make an endeavor feel suddenly very real.

According to their recent statements, the team is moving out of the phase of training and the construction of their spaceflight experiments to fine-tuning their payloads and integrating them with future spacecraft.  With SwRI and Dr. Alan Stern leading the way, the advent of commercial civilian scientist-astronauts is upon us, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  I hope to follow right behind.

Ad astra, SwRI!





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…





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…





Paradigm Shift

28 02 2011

The Next-generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference (NSRC) is in full swing, and the momentum here is staggering.  We’ve had a very good showing to start and have gained invaluable feedback… and it’s only the first morning.  As was mentioned by Dr. Alan Stern earlier this morning, this is Silicon Valley, the year is 1979, and commercial spaceflight is the personal computer.

A paradigm shift is happening right now.

The future many of us have been working toward is truly nigh.  More to come soon.





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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