Thursday, March 12, 2015

Laura the Future Suborbital Scientist Astronaut - Thank You NASTAR!

This evening I met up with a blast from the past, the lovely Brienna of the NASTAR Center, who I ran into in Washington, D.C. last week for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation meeting. She and I had a great discussion about our respective companies and the future commercial space industry. Both of our companies have a role in training for and educating the public about commercial spaceflight. Our conversation brought me back to me time training at the NASTAR Center over four years ago (wow time files!).

My NASTAR opportunity was serendipitous. I was attending a Next-Generation Suborbital Space Research Workshop at Kennedy Space Center in July 2010, representing my grad school group run by Josh Colwell of the University of Central Florida. Alan Stern was talking with Jaydeep Mukherjee the director of the Florida Space Grant Consortium. Alan mentioned that he is an advisor for a private facility called the National AeroSpace Training and Research Center (NASTAR) that provides aerospace training programs and that the next NASTAR Suborbital Science Training Program would take place the following week. The conversation went something like this:

Jaydeep: "We would love to send a student to NASTAR!"
Alan: "Her boss," points to me, "and one of his graduate students attended the first NASTAR suborbital training session."
Me: "Yes, they went right before I started at UCF."
Alan: "Would you like to go?"
Me: "Yes, I'd love to go!"
Jaydeep: "We'll send you next week, then."
Me: "Seriously?"
Jaydeep: "Yes, call me tomorrow and we'll arrange it."

I later found out that this was a bit of a set up between Alan and my grad school advisor to send me to NASTAR with Florida Space Grant Consortium involvement. FSGC sponsored my attendance to the NASTAR program, my flights, and my car rental. It just so happens that the NASTAR Center is located close to my hometown in Pennsylvania where my parents were still living at the time, so I opted to stay with them. I have to give props to FSGC who has been very willing to invest in opportunities for Florida students and open to innovative new ideas for projects and activities. FSDC also sponsored my NASA Academy internship in 2005, but that's a topic for another time.

My NASTAR class consisted of 8 students including Clara Moskowitz of who was covering the program. The purpose of the three-day program was to train scientists who will (hopefully) someday conduct experiments on suborbital spacecraft.

Day 1 consisted of lectures on human physiologically so that we'd understand how our bodies react to high G loads and low air pressure such as blackouts and hypoxia. We donned flightsuits and entered the altitude chamber. Altitude training gave us exposure to a hypothetical situation where a spacecraft would become depressurized at a high altitude. It is uncertain whether all private astronauts will wear pressurized spacesuits or air masks. If the cabin depressurizes below 60,000 ft, the astronauts not suited up will need to know how to breath in low-pressure environments. Above 60,000 ft, there's no hope for humans in a depressurized environment because of out-gassing of fluids, so training won't help in that scenario.

They brought us to a pressure equivalent to 18,000 ft, around the altitude a small airplane would fly, still not that high comparatively but enough to give us an idea. We removed our oxygen masks. Nearly immediately I felt lightheaded, a symptom of hypoxia that lasted a minute or two before I adjusted to the lack of air, then the symptom went away. It's also possible that I experienced a second symptom, euphoria, because I felt great for the rest of the experience!

Day 2 began with lectures on a variety of subjects: the history of spaceflight, an overview of the commercial space industry, and centrifuge training. Because there is a possibility of G-force-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC), they taught us some techniques to avoid passing out. With Gz, the blood in our body is pushed down, which makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood to the head and the brain may not get enough oxygen. At 5 Gz, blood can no longer reach the head. We learned anti-G stress techniques to mitigate against the risk.

Finally, the moment we had been waiting for – centrifuge time! I entered the single-person chamber at the end of the centrifuge arm and strapped into the seat. The first flight was a calm 2 Gz maximum for 15 seconds. That doesn't sound long, but sustained G forces are hard to take, and "sustained" means greater than half a second. I had no problem with that first flight and smiled the whole time.

The second flight profile got me up to 3.5 Gz for 20 seconds, which was noticeably more difficult. I was one of the only students to have any vision loss. My eyes started getting fuzzy a little like I had been awake for a really long time, but anti-G techniques brought my vision back immediately. To my surprise, I could still lift my arms up and move around quite a bit despite the increased heavy feeling pushing down on me.

The third flight profile brought me up to 3 Gx for 15 seconds, which I think is the maximum Gx on an amusement park centrifuge/gravitron ride, so I had great fun with that. But the best part came with the fourth flight, 6 Gx for 20 seconds. So much fun! I did have difficulty breathing with what felt like a huge weight on my chest. The hardest part was focusing while laughing. I was giggling the entire time! At 6 Gx, I was attempting to breath, giggle, and answer the instructor's question of "Can you breath?" all at once, which was pretty much impossible to do. I had such a blast! I didn't find out until I returned to the observation room that they had turned on the intercom audio for everyone to hear, so everyone witnessed my giggling fit. That actually helped one of the students feel less anxious about the experience, because if I was laughing the whole time, it must not be so bad.

The last activity of the day was distraction training, another component that's specific to the suborbital scientist training. Scientist astronauts or payload specialists will need to conduct experiments while in space, and suborbital space travel only allows for a few minutes of microgravity. We were each assigned a payload which was stored at the front of the "spacecraft" and not told ahead of time what our experiment involved. We raced to the front to collect and conduct our experiments while everyone else was doing their own thing and music was playing loudly before five minutes was up without interfering with anyone else's experiment.

It was hard! There is not much time at all in suborbital weightlessness to conduct experiments, especially with other people floating around in a confined area. And if this had been real, I'm quite certain that at least half of my time would be spent doing somersaults and staring out the window rather than working. These are important concepts to keep in mind for future research astronauts.

We then broke into pairs and did a different kind of experiment. One of us was an Earth observer looking at pictures of the Earth with our telescope (a paper tube), and the other was a note-taker. The observer needed to stare at the images of Earth with the telescope in order to locate and read off the alphanumeric code typed somewhere on the image. The trick: the observer spin around in circles between images to become disoriented. The altitude chamber didn't make me sick, the centrifuge didn't make me sick, but spinning in circles made me sick!

Day 3 was the ultimate centrifuge ride: the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo flight profile! The flight profile is complex with both Gx and Gz at the same time. Launch is the most intense, followed by a period of "weightlessness" in space, then a reentry pattern which is mostly Gx. Our first flight was only 50% of the intensity of the Virgin Galactic flight to prepare us for the second flight, which was 100%, the same G forces a Virgin Galactic passenger would feel on a mission to space. The visuals on the display matched the flight storyline, a narrator provided some description of what was happening. 

There was a countdown to drop, and I really did feel like my spacecraft was being separated from the carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo. A second or two later, the countdown to launch began, and then the craziness! My chair started vibrating to simulate the rocket launch, I was pushed down and against the chair, my vision went fuzzy, my chest felt heavy, and my adrenalin kicked in as I let out laughs and shouts of joy. I did anti-G techniques and my vision returned instantly.

Immediately after "the rocket stopped firing" I was "floating in the microgravity of space.” I lifted my arms and they really did feel lighter than normal. This phase lasted a while but shorter than an actual suborbital flight because there's no training to be done. Out of the display windows I could see stars, the Sun, and the curvature of Earth. Then was "reentry into Earth's atmosphere," which was an intense feeling of Gx against my chest that let up a little after a few seconds then started back up again. I was able to get through it just fine. At the very end of my second flight during the slow-down, I felt a little dizzy, probably from moving my head too much to look around while the centrifuge was still in motion. That was and awesome roller coaster ride and I'd love to do it again, especially the real thing!

We then discussed our feedback as scientists who may someday fly on one of these private suborbital flights. We were unanimous: all of us were strongly of the opinion that any person – tourist or scientist – who plans to fly on a suborbital flight needs to undergo some kind of G-force training. Without it, a person wouldn't know what to expect, wouldn't know how to deal with the G forces, and may pass out or become sick. If a lot of money is being spent to send someone up to space, that person should be prepared for what will happen to them so they don't become disoriented or unconscious and lose valuable time.

Another important observation was just how little time there is on a suborbital spaceflight and how distracted a first-time astronaut would be. We're human, we will want to float around, play with the microgravity, and enjoy the stunning beauty of our world from space. If a scientist is to get any work done, the experiment needs to be very simple, mostly automated, and very short. There's no guarantee that a scientist will even be able to get out of his/her seat in order to conduct an experiment, so the easier, the better. Prior to this experience, all my focus had been on how cool being in space and experiencing microgravity would be, I hadn't even thought about the intensity, strength, and disorientation of launch and landing. A scientist and a payload will need to be able to withstand launch and landing in order to successfully complete the mission.

I proudly display my NASTAR wings at home next to my Space Camp wings. I'll admit to being really nervous at first and unsure if I'd even be able to do it, but now that I've been through the NASTAR program, I have the confidence to know that I can handle a suborbital spaceflight. A real space mission would be the ultimate thrill. I would go in a heartbeat. Yes, it's very expensive. Yes, it's very dangerous. But it's so worth it. To live that dream and to help start a new chapter in humanity's history, it's so worth it. I am very grateful to Josh, Alan, and the Florida Space Grant Consortium for sending me to NASTAR!

Clara Moskowitz's article on the experience can be found here.
Visit the NASTAR Center website for more information.

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