January 13, 2010
Planetary scientist Dan Durda was the co-leader of a two-day training course held this week at the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center for scientists who want to learn the ropes of suborbital spaceflight.
Durda sent back these dispatches from the NASTAR center in Pennsylvania.
Day One: “Spun up”
The first day of our inaugural Suborbital Scientist-Astronaut Training course at the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) center has finally arrived. This is a two-day class that Alan Stern and I conceived, in collaboration with Brienna Henwood at NASTAR; it grows from our own experiences flying science experiments in high-performance jet aircraft and zero-gravity research flights, and is designed as an introduction to some of the physical and mental challenges of accomplishing demanding research tasks in the dynamic environment of suborbital spaceflight. The two-day class consists of classroom aeromedical instruction and sessions in an altitude chamber and NASTAR’s high-fidelity centrifuge trainer.
It was my intention to try to make some small blog updates live throughout the day to bring you along through the class, but just as the course itself is focused on how to keep yourself focused on the task at hand during flight, it quickly became apparent to me that blogging was going to have to take a back seat to paying attention to the course work. So here we are at the end of Day 1, and I can finally pour forth some of my impressions.
First, and perhaps most importantly, it says a lot that ten other scientists were ready to spend their time and money to travel across the country and participate in this course. The world of pervasive personal spaceflight is right around the corner, and these researchers recognize the potential offered by the next generation of commercial suborbital vehicles to get their science done. Other scientists routinely travel to the bottom of the ocean or to frigid polar extremes or to other equally challenging environments to personally do their own research; there’s no reason for space scientists not to have the same opportunity – not any longer.
As an experienced flight researcher I’ve been through a number of altitude chamber sessions before, so today’s portion of the course was more of a refresher for me. I still consider today an important learning experience, of course, because there’s always a new angle on course material from new instructors, and it never hurts to get more hands-on training with flight equipment and procedures. For me, though, the real fun and interesting perspective of today’s chamber ride was getting to share the experience with friends and colleagues for whom this was all brand new. As experienced professional scientists, they assimilated the new technical information very rapidly, of course. But as human beings facing a new and uncertain experience, there was for some of the participants a bit of apprehension about certain aspects of the training. How is hypoxia going to affect me? Am I going to feel pain from the gas bubble expanding under my tooth filling as we ascend in altitude? Being able to draw on my own experiences to assuage their fears or to add to the academic material presented in class proved to be a very gratifying contribution for me. The best part was to experience the joy of learning something new all over again through my colleagues’ eyes.
Tomorrow [Wednesday] we head to the centrifuge for g-tolerance training and two flights of actual suborbital vehicle launch, flight, and re-entry g profiles. That’ll all be new for me as well, so we all get to share in the learning process together. I don’t think it goes too far to say that Alan and I, and the ten other scientists in the course with us, are rather ‘spun up’ about getting spun up to do our science in space!
Day Two: “A piece of cake, guys”
The second day of the inaugural Suborbital Scientist-Astronaut Training course at the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) center is now complete, and this first course (10A, as Alan Stern has coined it, to parallel the nomenclature of test pilot school graduating classes) is in the history books. I have a sense that a couple decades from now, this course may be looked back on with some fondness as a sort of “good ‘ol days” when a new era of everyday scientist-astronaut was born.
Today for me was a day to discover my own physiological and mental responses to some of the stresses of high-g flight profiles, and more importantly, I think, to share in the joys of new experiences shared with my fellow graduates of the course. The order of business for the day was a series of four flights in the NASTAR 25-foot centrifuge to build our experience with g loads in both Gz and Gx – “eyeballs down” and “eyeballs in” – accelerations felt in the cockpit. These four flights were followed after lunch by two flights to simulate the exact g profile of a suborbital spaceflight aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (one flight at half the actual g loads, and another flight simulating the profile of a full flight to space, from launch through the ballistic zero-g arc out of the atmosphere to the re-entry).
Once again, I think my own previous experiences in flying high-performance and general aviation aircraft served well to damp down some of the anticipatory anxieties associated with a new and perhaps somewhat challenging experience. Cameras and an audio link within the centrifuge cockpit broadcast our flights to our waiting colleagues in an observing room overlooking the centrifuge bay, and I did my best to ‘lead the troops’ by providing some encouraging commentary during my own first flights. It really was a very exhilarating experience, and it was immediately clear to me that scientists from a wide range of backgrounds are going to have no problem training and adapting to this new work environment. “It’s a piece of cake, guys,” was my reassuring message live from the cockpit.
And it truly is – anyone can fly to space in these new vehicles. We’re on the heels of a revolution in personal and research access to space. After today’s introduction to the feel of flying to space and back, I can’t wait to make the flights for real!
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