The Right Stuff?
Our columnist David Grinspoon reports on his experience in the first class of scientist/astronauts to train for private suborbital spaceflight.
Some things you can take for granted – like gravity and air. Except for when you can’t. I spent the last couple of days learning how to deal with radical alterations in these basics in preparation for an opportunity – soon I hope – to briefly leave our familiar world and see things anew.
I was fortunate to be invited to train for private suborbital spaceflight with the first class of scientist/astronauts, 5 women and 7 men planning to conduct experiments on these new spacecraft, possibly as early as 2011.
The classroom was the easy part. After learning about all that can go seriously wrong in altitude training and the danger signs you can’t ignore (sharp tooth pains must be immediately reported – expanding air pockets can actually make your teeth explode!) we, fitted with helmets and masks, entered the decompression chamber. After a half hour of breathing pure oxygen to flush out nitrogen and avoid the bends, they began to reduce the pressure. Lights were lowered to help us recognize the visual symptoms of hypoxia, and simulated altitudes were announced every thousand feet. At 18,000 feet we removed our masks. The idea is to purposefully bring on hypoxia in a controlled setting, familiarizing us to our own reactions. As the minutes ticked by we performed various intellectual, mathematical and mechanical tasks and recorded our symptoms. One of our classmates slumped to the ground unconscious but quickly revived when given oxygen and bravely elected to continue. After 20 minutes I felt numb and drowsy. I thought I was performing well but my final paper exercise –a maze – was, I saw later, an incoherent scrawl. This was about learning our limits and responses now so on a real spaceflight we could be comfortable and perform well.
The greater test came when we trained on the centrifuge. They did a good job of explaining the techniques we should use to avoid blacking out under increasing G-forces. But no matter how much they prepared us, I must admit (and I have the video to prove it) to being pretty freaked out when they sealed me in the chamber for the first time and began the countdown. I had sweaty palms and a racing heart but I knew my image and voice were being live webcast and that hundreds of people, including my colleagues back in Denver, were watching, so I tried to keep it together. I was certainly not prepared for the crushing, suffocating feeling when they put me up to 3.5 gs (the maximum that space shuttle astronauts encounter). When they accelerated me to 6 gs (which SpaceShip2 will experience during re-entry) I really had to quickly apply the anti-G straining maneuvers (clenching lower and upper body, pressured breathing) in order to keep my peripheral vision from closing in on me and avoid “G-LOC” (G-Induced Loss of Consciousness).
Our final centrifuge training was a full-up simulation of an entire trip on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 – a ride we are all hoping to take for real. The surrounding visual projections simulated the the changing horizon line, receding ground, and exterior views fore and aft.
Was all this actually fun? In the end, yes. As one does when experiencing new challenges in group situations, I quickly bonded with my fellow trainees. Especially when one of us was experiencing difficulty, our personal triumphs became group successes. And on that final, full simulation, I was able (except for the few moments of max g) to relax and enjoy the ride. Even those simulated views of Earth and space, the receding gulf coastline, the thin blue limb of Earth, the gently spinning starscape, geometrically accurate but obvious animations, provided enough of a hint of the strangeness, beauty and exhilaration of the real thing that I felt overcome with joy – and not just because the “adventure” was over and I had passed the final test. “Normal” gravity and air pressure are overrated. There is a universe out there waiting for us. Lets go!