Learning to fly: Future space tourists train like fighter pilots

With commercial space flight on the horizon, a Pennsylvania training center offers would-be astronauts a chance to experience the rigors of blasting off. CNET sister site SmartPlanet investigates.

Kevin Gray
8 min read
Nastar Center

Some 23 miles north of Philadelphia -- amid the RadioShacks, golfing greens, and former corn fields of the Pennsylvania suburbs -- sits a low building with glass double doors and a bright blue awning. It's barely distinguishable from rows of office parks and dental labs. But it is a key destination on what has become America's epic journey to commercial space flight.

Inside it stand classrooms, training bays, and 15 flight simulators, including a state-of-the-art centrifuge that's like a giant clock arm set horizontal and spinning fast enough to simulate the G-forces of space flight. Its flight pod contains a mock-up altimeter, nerve-tingling surround sound speakers, a motion simulator that shakes your seat with the force of a rocket blast, and an Epcot-quality video feed that shows the Earth receding like a pebble in a pond behind you.

More than 300 future space tourists and civilian researchers from around the world have traveled here, to the National Aerospace Training and Research (Nastar) Center, to test their bodies and minds on this machine.

As commercial spaceflight outfits like Virgin Galactic -- which plans to launch the first passenger flights next year -- and inventor Elon Musk's Space X prepare to send the public into space, the privately run Nastar is helping these companies train passengers on how to handle the demands of space travel.

"This is not a roller coaster ride," says Brienna Henwood, Nastar's director of training. "You are boarding a rocket. This is extreme. How will that affect you? You are going to be anxious. You will feel motion sickness. Your body is under enormous stress. Some people have heart risk, back problems, diabetes, joint issues. There will be problems. This is the first time we are sending the general population to space so we have no idea how [they] are going to react."

According to the 2006 Survey on Public Space Travel funded by NASA, the space tourism market could churn out some $650 million in annual revenues by 2021, with an estimated 13,000 untrained space-flight passengers getting their astronaut wings each year.

Far from being a Disneyland experience on steroids, space flight will make huge physical, mental, and emotional demands on these passengers. Virgin plans to drop its spaceship from the bottom of a jet at 50,000 feet. The ship will then rocket its way into suborbit, 68 miles above Earth. It will hit 2,800 miles per hour and exert up to 6 G-forces (six times each person's weight, enough to force blood from their heads toward their feet and put them on the edge of blacking out) on the passengers' bodies. The zero-gravity of space will be disorienting. And the plunge back to Earth will be as grueling as the ride up.

Amid the euphoric race to put tourists into space, few people have bothered to ask what exactly passengers will endure and how they will deal with it. Plenty is known about space travel's impacts on highly trained astronauts, but no one knows how it will affect the untrained traveler. It is Nastar's job to help these companies figure that out.

Rocket-travel risks
This year, Nastar teamed up with the Federal Aviation Administration, as well researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch, to study the effects of simulated space travel on people with common ailments, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, asthma, or a history of back or neck problems. They will be strapping volunteers into the Phoenix, the world's most high-fidelity space flight simulator, videotaping their responses and monitoring their vital signs.

It will be the largest study of its kind ever performed on a civilian population, and Nastar expects that it will help the FAA and others shape future recommendations for space travel. In a 2006 report, the FAA had already noted that rapid acceleration stress from rocket travel can cause changes in cardiac rhythm and conduction and that the head, neck, and spine need to be stabilized to reduce the potential for musculoskeletal injury.

Nastar Center

The good news, Henwood says, is that 95 percent of passengers who have taken the Nastar training course (but have not been part of the UTMB study) have shown no problems, have completed their training, and been given the thumbs-up for space travel.

Though space flight companies like Virgin don't require passengers to take the Nastar course, which costs $3,000 for a two-day session of classroom and centrifuge training, they suggest it as a good first step. For some of Virgin's passengers, who bought their seats as far back as 2007 and have been waiting years to get their shot at making space flight history, "this is the first tangible thing they are able to do," Henwood says.

Going 'eyeballs back'
A primary risk in successful space travel will be acceleration. So the first thing Henwood and her team do is teach newcomers about different types of G-forces. When the Virgin Galactic rocket drops from the mothership, it will blast off horizontally, thrusting passengers back into their seats with what's called front to back force, or Gx, known among fighter pilots as "eyeballs back" for the force it exerts on your eyes. The rocket then will swiftly make a turn upward, toward space. At that point, the force becomes Gz, or head to toe, known as "eyeballs down" because of the forces you feel tugging inside your body. This pushes your blood toward your feet.

"This is significant," Henwood tells her recruits. "Because your body is like a column of liquid, and this is pushing your blood down. Your heart has to pump very fast to keep the blood up in your brain, to keep you conscious, to keep blood around your eyes so that you can see and to keep you alive." The concern is that passengers experiencing these G's can go into what's called G-loc, where they black out.

To counter that, Henwood and her staff teach passengers the type of anti-G training maneuvers that top fighter pilots learn in the military. It's fairly straightforward. You clench all your muscles -- your core, your legs, your chest, and upper arms -- to keep the blood in your upper body and force it back into your head so you can remain alert. "With enough practice, you can train your body to deal with these forces," she says.

Most commercial space outfits plan to offer several minutes of weightlessness in suborbit. Both Virgin Galactic and its closest rival, XCOR Aerospace, which hopes to launch within the next two years, will use a parabolic trajectory. Basically, their ships will blast to the edge of space, lingering at the peak for four or five minutes and allowing passengers to float around the cabin, then plunge back to Earth for a runway landing.

In its promotional material, Virgin has described the views from space as near mystical and enchanting. In space, floating passengers will see 1,500 miles in every direction -- the curve of the Earth, vast weather patterns, and the thin, electric-blue line of our atmosphere that separates us from deep black space.

The experience might also make them sick. About 70 percent of trained astronauts suffer space motion sickness during what's called microgravity or weightlessness while flying in space for the first time. It's due to sensory conflicts -- not knowing what's up or down. In fact, there is no up or down in space.

"You're spinning in space and you don't know what's left or right, up or down and you feel drunk, like this vertigo coming on," Henwood says. "You look out one window, it might be black space and another you might see Earth, but it's above you, not below you." Symptoms like dizziness, pallor, sweating, and severe vomiting can occur without warning right after the engine shuts down.

The Aerospace Medical Association, looking at health issues on commercial space flights, noted in a 2011 issue of the Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine journal, that "vomiting can crescendo quite suddenly... In a multipassenger vehicle, one passenger becoming nauseated can potentially trigger nausea in the other vehicle occupants." They advise not moving your head around fast. Nastar teaches future passengers to deal with the disorienting sensations of zero gravity, as well as emergency procedures, in an advanced two-day training course that costs $4,000.

Reentry to the atmosphere during the plunge back to Earth will be among the fastest and noisiest moments of the flight. One of Virgin's test pilots likened it to the sound of a tornado inside the cabin. During the 20-minute free fall, Virgin has said passengers will feel up to 6 G-forces on their bodies. Virgin's passenger seats will recline to help them absorb this pressure.

Be prepared for pressure
"It will feel like someone stacking metal plates on their bodies," Henwood says. "That's a lot of pressure for someone to take. Older bones may be brittle. It can be very painful. Your lungs will feel squeezed and you can have a panic attack." The same anti-G straining -- clenching muscles, steady breathing -- is taught for this, too.

In its advanced course, Henwood's team also teaches survival skills in space. For instance, there is no oxygen higher than 20,000 feet above Earth's surface. If you are flying on a commercial jet at 30,000 feet, the pressurized cabin supplies oxygen. If the cabin loses pressure, it can quickly drop to 20,000 feet where there is air. But a space plane 68 miles above Earth cannot do that.

Some of the commercial space flight companies will use pressurized space suits for backup. Others, like Virgin, say they will be flying in what they call a "shirt sleeve" environment. They will have backup systems, including small canisters that deliver oxygen for several minutes until the ship can descend. The potential trouble is that a loss in oxygen can cause hypoxia before you even know it. With hypoxia, Henwood says, it's similar to what climbers experience on Mount Everest, "there is so little oxygen that it is literally extracted from your body." The symptoms are so subtle -- fatigue, euphoria, tingling, lack of coordination -- that if you are not trained to spot it, as Nastar teaches, you may not get to that air canister in time.

Joyride, anyone?
You don't need to be a ticket holder to feel what future astronauts will feel. The Nastar centrifuge is available for joyrides, as long as you have the $3,000 to hop aboard. For those who actually plan to go to space, the experience and training is meant not only for their safety, but to help them "be mentally and emotionally prepared to enjoy the trip and not be distracted or thrown off by unfamiliar sights and sounds and sensations," Henwood says.

The Phoenix centrifuge is literally the next best thing to blasting off. Nastar has programmed it to follow the Virgin flight protocol. So when you strap in and they close the door, you feel you are being lifted to 50,000 feet and then, with a surround-sound whoosh, dropped.

"The whole cabin pitches forward, like the ship will do, and then boom, the rocket fires and you feel those front to back G-forces throw you into the seat," Henwood says. The seat shakes like the real thing, the altimeter races higher, and on a video screen Earth recedes from a rear-view camera behind the rocket's white trail plume.

"It's pretty cool," says Henwood, who gets to ride the Phoenix for free. "Everyone should try it."

This story originally appeared on SmartPlanet.