Monday, May 24, 2010

Virgin Galactic Dirty Little Secret

Virgin Galactic is arguably the leading private space tourism company, having actually built their suborbital craft and carrier and having flown them both. Their web site and publications all look taken from a sci-fi movie, with weightlessness touted as a wonder worth $200,000. One of the slogans Virgin Galactic uses (in the training page) is "Feel the Freedom of Zero G."

However, there's a dirty little secret that no one over at Virgin Galactic is talking about - space-sickness, or its more scientific name, Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS). Even with medication, most astronauts experience it when they go to space to varying degrees, from mild nausea or a headache to vomiting. SAS is a main reason that EVAs are done only after a few days in space, as vomiting inside a space suit is lethal. A hardly talked-about subject, one of the least pleasant experiences in the first few days in space, as attested by astronauts, is floating vomit. Even very short durations of micro-gravity, experienced on parabolic flights (much shorter than the several minutes on a suborbital flight) have earned airplanes that perform this kind of a flight profile the nick-name Vomit Comet.

Wait a minute. Over 50% of astronauts experience space-sickness? The same astronauts who are extremely fit and go through rigorous training for years before they go to space? The same who are in most cases fighter jet pilots, used to G-forces and other activities most people don't ever experience? So what should we expect with space tourists who train for only three days (according to Virgin Galactic) and probably have never experienced micro-gravity before? The same percentage? More?

Even if you're one of the lucky people not susceptible to space-sickness, you'll be sharing the cabin with five other passengers, thus conservatively, three or four of those will be nauseated, and with pretty high probability at least one will vomit, not enhancing the experience for everyone else, to say the least. After the few minutes of micro-gravity, the potential vomit floating in the cabin will go back to the floor, hopefully not meeting any passenger in the process, but even if everyone is so lucky, all of us who rode one too many roller-coasters in one day or ever had some stomach bug know that odor can be a problem in closed spaces such as a six-person cabin.

I encountered this subject twice in the past two weeks. The first time was when I talked with Mike Petrone (former Phantom pilot) on my way to Florida last week for the space shuttle Atlantis launch and the second time was The Space Show broadcast 1358, where  David Livingston's guest was Dr. Erik Seedhouse and the topic was astronaut training and Erik's book, "Prepare for Launch". Erik talked about space-sickness among other subjects surrounding the demanding job of astronauts.

So... If you already bought your ticket on a future Virgin Galactic flight, congratulations - you're rich. Can you buy me a ticket too? If you haven't bought a ticket yet, just keep in mind that either you or the person next to you may turn a little green up there...


Security Leaders Group said...

Great point Amnon! And truly a dirty proposition. :-)

I think they bank on the short time in free fall. By the time your stomach starts to heave you will feel the weight in the seat of your flight suit and can grab a barf bag.


Amnon I. Govrin said...

I think the solution will come in the form of medication to counteract the effect, though some astronauts still get sick with the patch, so I imagine this will be the case here as well.

Maybe all the adrenaline will help...

I hope people with micro-gravity flight experience or astronauts will comment as well!

Kreegan99 said...

Kind of interesting, but there are drugs out there that are used to soothe the nausea associated to chemo-therapy. These could possibly help as well during the adaption phase. Not sure this is a secret, and I wonder what the actual adaptive rate is for amusement park rides ;-)

Derek Nye said...

If the biggest of worries was puke...It is still worth 200,000 to take the ride. Sign me up! If it makes people feel embarrassed to throw-up, fine. I will throw-up to save them the embarrassment. =)

Anonymous said...

Derek said it. My first time every flying was in a Cessna and the pilot did a few aerobatic maneuvers that in the end, got me sick.

Heck, if all I had to do was throw up to get myself to the edge of space, I would do it in a heartbeat :)

Really though, it all depends on the type of person you are. I know one of the pilots of the "Vomit Comet" who loves being weightless yet he dislikes being on roller coasters. Go figure.

Amnon I. Govrin said...

Guys, you're right. I would do it in a heartbeat (and as a co-founder of Astronauts4Hire I hopefully will...).
This topic peaked my curiosity when I heard about it from two different sources... See you all on a flight in 2 years? :-)

Clark said...

Not sure it's really a secret since the threat of space sickness is mentioned in many articles about space tourism.

It is almost always mentioned in articles about parabolic flights as with the ZERO-G service. Via the help of guides on board, medication, and incremental steps from Mars gravity to full weightlessness, ZERO-G has managed to reduce it significantly. (The FAQ on their website says, "Today, very few people experience uneasiness or nausea during the flight.")

Most of the suborbital passengers will include parabolic flights in their training. VG, in fact, has mentioned a plan to have each set of passengers first ride in the WK2 to see the release of the SS2 and then do some parabolas.

Some perspective is also merited. I wonder, for example, what percentage of people who take an extended sail boat trip for the first time on a moderately windy day get sea sick?

Amnon I. Govrin said...

Clark, I think the difference between ZG and VG is the target audience. So ZG mentions it, VG doesn't...
As for a sail-boat, you're right, but it doesn't cost $200,000 to go on a sail-boat and you get more than the short time it will take to launch and come back down...

Just to put it out there - if anyone wants to give me a sail-boat or a VG ticket I won't refuse :-)

Norman Copeland said...

From what I'm could guess, the g force training that air force pilots do is designed to be a readying practice mechanism which gives the pilot and mate an experience of the sensation of pressure and velocity which has not been felt before. It is not a tollerance that is being built, but, it is a knowledge of it and thus that is what preparation is, is not whether or not the tollerance is available, but, how people react, ''react'' being the rocket scientists genius word in operation.

Tim said...

copied from my comment on the Space Tweep Society blog:

First, you are being VERY over-dramatic painting this as a "dirty little secret". There are many, MANY issues that must be dealt with in preparation for space flight--even short parabolic flights!--that are not spelled out on the VG site.

I have flown on over 140 parabolic flights (3200+ parabolas) and observed around 4,000 people experiencing microgravity--many for the first time. I am VERY familiar with motion sickness and understand the causes and frequency quite well.

Many people have a hard time dealing with the increased gravity (1.8-2 g's) more than the short microgravity portion. Many more are disoriented by the constant fluctuation between the reduced and increased gravity. A single 5-8 minute weightless stint will not be a problem for MOST people.

How many astronauts get sick in the first 5-10 minutes of their flight? Likely VERY few. That is the statistic you should look at as a comparison.

Motion sickness is one of the many issues that VG (or any suborbital carrier) will have to explain to customers before a flight. Saying it is some kind of "secret" is just bad journalism.

Amnon I. Govrin said...


Thanks for your comment, I appreciate any and every opinion.

As I wrote in the post, I based it on two testimonials, one from a personal experience of a fighter-jet pilot and another from The Space Show with Erik Seedhouse.

As you hopefully realize, I am fully engaged in getting into micro-gravity and suborbital flights, and the post title was my way to induce a little interest and controversy. I respect Virgin Galactic as an innovator and pioneer in suborbital flights, no offense intended.

Tim said...

reposted from the Space Tweep Society blog:

Your sensationalist title does not "induce a little interest." You are capitalizing on existing interest to increase your exposure. The post insinuates that the company with the most advanced plans for commercial suborbital spaceflight is maliciously hiding vital information. It is extremely offensive and lacks any respect for the company to use them for your own gain like this.

Discussing space motion sickness is a great topic for a space blog. Your approach, and lack of quality sources, is what is disappointing. I suggest going to a conference where you can talk in person to several people that have actually experienced microgravity.

No one knows for sure how much this will be an issue until we start taking TONS of people up on a regular basis. Until then, motion sickness (even is space!) is a known condition with a rich history of research into mitigation techniques. Nothing "secret" or "dirty" about it.

BrianShiro said...

I tend to agree with Tim, that the title is misleading, but I realize it is a play on words. We studied this subject a great deal in my human spaceflight course at UND. Note that half of astronauts experience space motion sickness on their first flight. After that, the number falls off considerably. Once you've experienced it the first time, it's less likely you'll get sick again. However, a few unlucky ones don't seem to benefit in this way.

Unknown said...

I've always wondered about this! Thank you for the info.

Norman Copeland said...

It is certainly an honorable experience to listen to the opinion of such a qualified professional, such is the desperate search for knowledge on a subject that many clamber across old text books for answers that still do not quench the ''need for space speed''.

The pillowtalk approach to journalism is certainly not enough for anyone with $200, 000 dollars to shy away as most with that sort of money have earnt it with calculated gambles that have proven them winners of fate. $200, 000 is 100-140 thousand pounds, and less in other countries, cheaper than a house.

Thats what enjoyment is folks!

It is a rush where one has the opportunity to place oneself in a riske position [sort of like talking to a blonde 5 minutes before the pub closes!], but, emerge with the credit of experience.

I certainly will be pushing all characters towards the envelope whether that be encouraging former NASA operatives to start companies that tour professional sports arenas organising zero gravity training for the advancement of on planet orientation and improved performance.

Go figure.

Amnon did.

[Darn pillowtalkers].