Sunday, June 10, 2012

My NASTAR Experience - Ground Training for Space Launch

One week in March I got to live a bit of my space aspiration. No, I didn't go to space (I continued to ride spaceship Earth). What I did was to go through two segments of commercial astronaut training. After AGSOL near Boston it was time for NASTAR near Philadelphia. Over three days I went up to a simulated 25,000ft altitude in a hypobaric chamber and went on simulated flights that exposed me to real 3.5Gz, 6Gx and most exciting of all, a virtual ride on SpaceShipTwo.

NASTAR is a place that trains many types of people, from fighter jet pilots to aspiring astronauts and space tourists. Over the past five years, after being spun-off of a manufacturing facility for centrifuges, altitude chambers and simulators, it formed several training programs around suborbital flight. The one I went through with seven other men and women was Suborbital Scientist Training, meant for people who will not only go to space as tourists, but will actually need to function in the few minutes of weightlessness rather than just admire the view. My plan B is to win the lottery...


In contrast to AGSOL's no-fanfare frugal academic lab-in-a-basement, NASTAR's simulation equipment is matched with presentation. The classroom and binders are tasteful and provide a good learning experience, and the flight suit everyone got, bearing the NASTAR patch and the US flag (which I replaced with the Israeli one) had a cool geeky factor that added a level of reality to everything we did. I also proudly wore the Astronauts4Hire patch.
Lastly, I had my Garmin watch to measure my heart rate during the centrifuge flights and I brought something I borrowed from my kids to use during the final one, but more on that later...

Day 1 - High Altitude

In the altitude chamber (credit: NASTAR)
The first day at NASTAR can best be described as stationary. Like all good things, centrifuges come to those who wait and go through high altitude training first. After half a day of class time, learning about the physiological effects of high altitude on the human body, we got fitted with masks and went into the hypobaric chamber (aka altitude chamber). No, it was nothing like the one Michael Jackson allegedly used. It looks like a big container with room for up to twenty people and can run multiple low-pressure related profiles, from gradual ascent and descent to rapid decompression.

Waiting to get virtually high
For thirty minutes we breathed pure oxygen and went up (or rather sat in the room while air was being sucked out) to 8,000 and then 25,000ft, when we were instructed to remove our masks and solve a simple worksheet. People have different manifestations of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, such as tingling, nausea, apprehension and fatigue to name a few. While different from person to person, the symptoms usually remain the same from one exposure to the next. In the lottery of hypoxia I raffled euphoria. In what just felt as a pretty sudden onset of enjoyment and happiness, I felt on cloud nine (well, it was simulated high altitude...). As fun as it may sound, it is very important to realize one's symptoms. In case of needing to function in a sudden low-oxygen environment, knowing what to expect is a big step towards functioning and ultimately saving lives. My unexplained happiness of driving up mountains with my family suddenly made sense...

The Centrifuge

The NASTAR centrifuge with people for scale.
You sit in the capsule on the right.
Ahhh... The centrifuge... This magical device I didn't want to get out of, bolted to lots of concrete, can turn quickly and induce all kinds of fun... or in more technical terms, the NASTAR STS-400 Phoenix sustained-G centrifuge is one of about 18 in the world that simulate a plethora of flight situations and forces. It can operate in an open loop (i.e. the subject sits in chair and gets exposed to a flight profile without controlling it) or closed loop (the subject becomes an operator of a simulated aircraft and can even fight someone else across the globe in another centrifuge. Take that force feedback PlayStation3 controllers...). In short, when sitting in the centrifuge one doesn't really go anywhere (except for in circles), but the G-forces are practically the same ones that would otherwise be induced in a jet fighter plane or spaceflight, depending on the programmed profile. Alas, one thing even the mighty centrifuge cannot simulate is zero-gravity. For that, you have to go to space or at least go on a parabolic flight.

Day 2 - Hello, Gs

The second day at NASTAR was a preparation day to the final day, a day to learn techniques to handle sustained G forces one doesn't experience on Earth (not even on roller coasters) so that we don't miss any of the fun by losing consciousness (G-LOC) when we fly a full suborbital flight profile. The purpose of the 2 "flights" on day 2 was to train us with techniques to counteract +Gz (downward) and +Gx (front to back) forces and identify signs that would lead to loss of consciousness. As someone who usually lives in about 1G the sensations were great and I'm happy to report the countermeasures work fine. For the +3.7Gz profile, knowing that after partial loss of vision usually comes G-LOC and "the chicken dance" gives you the necessary motivation to do what you're told to avoid it. The +6Gx profile does not make you faint, however it makes you heavy. For 20 seconds I weighed over 1,000 lbs (almost half a metric ton!), but then I shed the extra 900 lbs at the same speed I gained them. Fastest diet ever. Doing air push-ups (moving the arms like during push-ups) feels like holding some pretty heavy dumb-bells.

Day 3 - One Giant Leap...

On day 3 we went through an exercise in performing an experiment while simulated passengers make us want to throw them out the air-lock (lucky for them there is none in currently built suborbital spacecraft), an important simulation that may take place in reality in a few years, when paying customers may ride with people performing micro-gravity experiments.
The most anticipated on that day was the simulated SpaceShipTwo flight profile. It is the closest thing possible to the real thing and combines audio, video and of course G forces. At the "zero gravity" part, when the "rocket engine" turned off, I pulled out what I borrowed from my kids - a Lego astronaut. While holding it in my hands I said something I prepared the night before. Corny, maybe, but it embodied my feelings and sense of accomplishment. Yes, I paraphrased some other guy 43 years ago, and yes, I actually didn't leave Earth gravity or even sea-level, but the sensation was real. The G forces were real. The feeling was real.


Nicely tying the two very different experiences that spring week in March on the east coast was a picture of Ashton Graybiel that hangs at NASTAR, alongside others under the heading "Giants of the SD World" (SD = Situational Disorientation). It was interesting to see past tied with future. Sure, we didn't land on Mars in the 1980s like Von Braun pushed for, but space, in its own peculiar way, is getting closer.

After graduation.
Note the NASTAR wings and Israeli flag
This was an amazing week. For this week I was an astronaut in training. I experienced physiological phenomena I haven't experienced before, at least not in this magnitude and focus. I inched towards my space aspirations. I was with other people, who even though come from very different backgrounds compared to the people I work with every day, felt closer to me based on their common interest in space. For a brief week I got a tiny glimpse of going to space, and with it an affirmation of my spacepirations...

No comments: