Scientists Suit Up For Spaceflight Training
Trainees of the Suborbital Space Scientist Training course underwent G-tolerance training using NASTAR's ATFS/STS-400 machine.
Credit: The NASTAR Center

A group of 13 scientists hoping to perform experiments on suborbital spaceships took a dizzying spin in a centrifuge this week in the first-ever commercial training session targeted at civilian researchers.

The training program, run by the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center, was aimed at preparing civilian scientists to conduct research in microgravity during short space trips. The program focused on suborbital flights, which are short voyages that reach space, but then come back down to Earth before completing one full orbit around the planet.

The two-day training course, which took place at the NASTAR facility outside Philadelphia, included altitude chamber and centrifuge runs to simulate the physical rigors of launch and reentry, as well as classroom courses on the commercial spaceflight industry and conducting research in space. The centrifuge runs were webcast live by Spaceref.com.

?I?m ready, light it up,? said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who helped organize the class. A short time later, he was pulling more than 3 Gs in the centrifuge. ?Oh baby, this is great.?

The scientist trainees hailed from many institutions, including MIT, Boston University, the Denver Museum of Natural Sciences, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the University of Central Florida and the University Space Research Association.

At least one commercial spaceflight company has expressed an interest in hosting scientists on suborbital research flights. The space tourism firm Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, is developing a fleet of SpaceShipTwo spacecraft to launch up to six passengers and two pilots to suborbital space. The SpaceShipTwo vehicle?s air-based carrier craft ? a twin boom aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo ? could also serve as a platform for microgravity research, company officials have said.

NASA regularly uses a modified jet to recreate microgravity conditions by flying parabolic arcs in the sky. The commercial company Zero G does the same using modified private, aircraft.

"The coming era of commercial suborbital spaceflight offers tremendous potential for the research and education communities," said co-organizer Dan Durda, also of the Southwest Research Institute. "The NASTAR Suborbital Scientist-Astronaut Course will provide us with important additions to our previous experience in high-performance aircraft, as well as valuable new training specifically aimed at getting us ready for suborbital spaceflight. As researchers working in a challenging, dynamic environment like that, it's important to be well-prepared to make efficient use of the experiment time available to us in flight."