A Taste of Space on Earth: Pilots, Passengers Train for Spaceliner Flights

Future space passengersare getting a leg up on appreciating the physiological rigors of suborbitalspaceflight they plan to take in the future, but without leaving the Earth.Using state-of-the-art equipment, the National Aerospace Training and Research Center (NASTAR Center) in Southampton, Pa., is helping to train both the pilots andprospective passengers of commercial spaceliners.

The NASTAR Center is a wholly owned subsidiary of Environmental Tectonics Corp. and houses an array oftraining devices, including a specialized high-performance human centrifuge.Known as the Space Training System-400, the centrifuge mimics the flightdynamics and sustained Gs of a rocket-powered flight to the edge of space,while providing a realistic view from the simulated cockpit windows. Along withG-force exposure, center facilities make available to patrons altitudeexposure, spatial disorientation and other physiological effects they willencounter as they enter the space environment.

Major changes intechnology — not only in computing power but also in visual display systems — have transformed the training simulator experience over the years, said GlennKing, the NASTAR Center's chief operating officer and a chief instructor at thefacility.

"Those old trainersof the past were just a little box that spun about, pulled by bellows andcables," King said. Today, electrical and computer power, along with highmotion control algorithms can position training hardware quickly and verydynamically, giving pilots very accurate feelings of flight, he told Space Newsin a Feb. 18 interview.

Along with handling spacetravel training, King said the center supports a variety of military and civilaviation needs, making use of highly modular equipment and programs. "We'veinvested anywhere between $25 million to $40 million in this facility and areprivately funded. We receive no funds from the U.S. government or outsidesources. We've funded it ourselves," he said.

Serious people,serious money

The emerging commercialspace travel business is a real market to service, King noted. "There areserious people out there with serious money. This is going to happen," hesaid, pointing particularly to the ongoing work at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., and that firm's building of the passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwosuborbital system.

Training at the NASTAR Center is an integral part of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company, which wasbankrolled by the U.K. billionaire to create the world's first commercialspaceline based on SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier/drop plane.Seats are selling for $200,000 each.

Dozens of Virgin Galacticspaceflight customers — known as "founders" — have trained at the NASTAR Center for their SpaceShipTwo suborbital encounters.

"We began our NASTARprogram last year to help test our hypothesis that at least 80 percent ofadults were capable of flying to space from a medical and psychological pointof view," said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic in a Feb. 14e-mail response to a Space News inquiry.

Whitehorn said thatduring the fall of 2007 more than 80 paid-up founder astronauts, includinghimself and Sir RichardBranson, made simulated SpaceShipTwo flights, with a visual simulation ofgoing to space as part of the NASTAR experience. That flight profile involved aspan ranging from 3.5 Gs, that pushes a person's back against their seat, to 6Gs, that drives an individual down into their seat.

"We discovered thatover 94 percent of adults are capable of coping with this level of G forceincluding individuals with a medical condition, provided these were properlyunderstood and accounted for," Whitehorn said.

Whitehorn declined todiscuss the pricing for the training, but in a Feb. 21 e-mail he said: "Thereis a product being developed now to give the undecided potential customers thechance to have a centrifuge experience and we will be announcing the priceshortly."

Physical and mentaldemands

Earlier this year,Whitehorn said the SpaceShipTwo training at the NASTAR Center was extended toaccredited sales agents, the international sales force that is selling seatsfor Virgin Galactic.

"By giving peoplethat sell seats a direct experience of what the flight will feel like, we havegiven them the confidence to help potential astronauts understand theexperience," Whitehorn said.

The more prepared a personis for the physical and mental demands of a flight, the better, agreed JaneReifert, president of Incredible Adventures Inc., based in Sarasota, Fla. Hergroup offers a range of adventure tour packages, including space training andtravel experiences.

"Customers needprior experience of high-g and zero-g in order to be capable of fully relaxingand enjoying their space flight," Reifert said. "You don't wantsomeone who's spent $200,000 or more for a suborbital flight to be too nervousor nauseous to enjoy the view. You also don't want to be the passenger sittingnext to someone who becomes violently ill or suffers a panic attack at 300,000feet (91,000 meters)," she told Space News via a Feb. 20 e-mail.

Self-regulatingindustry

NASTAR's King took noteof the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) role in developing guidelines forcommercial space crew and passenger training. "They are taking a hands-offapproach at this point in time. I understand their position and their oversightto give the commercial space traveler a safe environment. If you start puttingregulations out, it would stifle the industry at this point. It's just tooearly."

Keeping that hands-offapproach for a few more years is King's advice. "Let the dust settleand we'll figure out what we're doing. Let the industry self-regulate rightnow. So far that's the FAA approach. They've put out guidelines ? but haven'tmandated them to actual regulations. Let's not put out regulations before wesee the data," he said.

For one, there areseveral variations of suborbital spaceships now being designed, King added. "Eachone will have its own set of criteria for crew training and passenger training.It's going to be very difficult for the FAA to set up a generic mandate for allthe different carriers to comply with," he explained.

Last month, the centerbegan offering two-hour, half-day, full-day and two-day-combo programs thatsimulate space voyages, as well as jet flights. Dubbed the Air and SpaceAdventure Programs, the cost per participant is anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000,King said, for one-day and two-day programs. "People can come in and get ataste of space."

What if a person findsout they are not space travel worthy? King said the center can work with thatindividual to learn countermeasures such as anti-G training maneuvers orbreathing techniques. "All those things that we've taught fighter pilotsfor years ? we transfer that directly to the space travelers."

Akin to the evolution ofaviation, King senses that commercial space travel will become a very routineenterprise. "There will be some hiccups and bumps along the road. Buteventually, it will settle down into a regular commercial endeavor," heconcluded.

For moreinformation on the National Aerospace Training & Research Center (NASTAR Center), go to: http://www.nastarcenter.com.

  • New Video: Virgin Galactic: Let the Journey Begin
  • VIDEO: The Dream of 40 Centuries
  • All About Space Tourism

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.