I was way, way out of my depth.
I have done strange things for stories. I toured a slaughterhouse. I rode in EMT helicopters when I was perfectly well. I ate a burger with peanut butter and jelly on it. I got in the water with sharks. But I was ready to draw the line at the Space Travel Simulator (STS-400) centrifuge, feature deadlines be damned.
There were a hundred signs that, on assignment or not, I was not cut out to join the group of aspiring civilian astronauts who gathered at the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center for a two-day sub-orbital spaceflight training course last March. The NASTAR Center is a big building near a grocery store in Southampton, PA. The people shopping in the grocery store don’t know that the people in the NASTAR Center are routinely subjecting themselves to G-forces more than double that of your modern space-shuttle blast-off.
For interested parties, here’s an article I wrote for Flight International Magazine about how the centrifuge mimics sub-orbital spaceflight.
It used to be that astronauts trained for a lifetime to ride into space, but as early as next year, Virgin Galactic is going to make civilian trips into space a reality – for those who can afford it. It’ll be a two-hour ride that includes about five minutes above the Karman line – that’s the generally-agreed boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. Those who make the trip may well be the next pioneers of the human world: the first tourists in space, at a cost of about $200,000.
That was the first clue that I was out of my league. There I was, nibbling on a breakfast pastry and thinking vaguely about what bills the payment for this story would cover, while my fellow trainees discussed the relative benefits of catamarans and yachts. They kept referring to “Richard”, whom they apparently spent time with at various international resorts. I realized that they meant Sir Richard Branson. Then they went on to discuss the best restaurants in Europe for eating barnacles.
But it wasn’t just the sensation that I had stumbled from my Ikea-furnished one-bedroom apartment into an amiable cabal of the super-rich. The forms in my orientation packet also jolted me out of my normal routine. I had already signed a form releasing everyone in the world of all liability should I be grievously injured or killed during the training. An on-site EMT I spoke to later enumerated possible effects of pummeling your body with high g-forces, including ripped aorta, torn trachea, broken bones and aneurism.
But perhaps most worrisome of all was a final survey form I peeked at on the first day of training. It asked whether the simulator’s “emesis bag” was conveniently located.
I hoped to God I would have no cause to answer this.
I fought my rising panic at entering the simulator – which would eventually exert forces of up to 6 gs on trainees – through a series of classroom lessons. In them, I discovered more reasons to quake in my boots.
Like the Funky Chicken.
Picture liquid spinning in a centrifuge – can you see it straining outwards as the machine gains speed? Or imagine yourself in one of those horrible amusement park rides, where you spin around and around in a circle until your back is pinned to the wall through the centrifugal force. Well, when the ol’ STS-400 gets going, that same force kicks in, stronger than any roller-coaster, but imagine that your head is at the center of the spinning amusement park ride, and your feet are at the edge of the circle.
Like the fluid in a lab centrifuge, what is the blood in your body going to do?
It’s going to drain out of your head, that’s what. And what happens when the blood (and its oxygen) leaves your brain? It’s called G-induced loss of consciousness (G-loc), and it can be fatal to pilots and dangerous to spaceflight passengers. Learning to combat the g-force through a special physical maneuver – a combination of rhythmic throat and muscle clenches – helps you stay conscious at high gs by keeping the blood in your brain, not your legs.
The Funky Chicken is what they call it at NASTAR when you wake up from g-loc: for some reason, the return of oxygen to the brain sends a brief, bizarre convulsion through the body, conveniently captured on video during NASTAR sessions. Check out this g-loc episode caught on video as a NASTAR staffer rides the simulator – he didn’t begin his anti-g maneuver quickly enough.
Here’s an article I wrote about the human factors of civilian spaceflight, which gives more explanation of how the g-force affects us and why.
By the time I comprehended that I would be strapped into the simulator’s gondola while the door sealed behind me, leaving me less space than a dormitory shower while the centrifuge’s 24-foot, 12-ton arm began to spin and the g-forces attempted to drain my blood and crush my lungs, I was literally dizzy with terror.
“There’s nothing to be nervous about,” one man declared, going gaily to his fate in the STS-400.
This was, of course, the biggest lie of the 21st Century so far.
A lengthy checklist preceded everyone’s “flight”, on everything from the control-room com-link to the five-point harness to the headrest height.
Finally, it was just me and the STS-400.
As the gondola picks up speed and rotates to mimic the positioning of the spacecraft, g-force affects different axes of the body, pressing you from shoulder to shoulder, head to toe, and chest to back. For a way to think about how high g’s feel, imagine that you’ve gained hundreds of pounds in an instant. Just lifting your arm is harder than doing a push-up.
Depending on the position of the spinning capsule, I felt as if a giant hand was pressing my entire ribcage upward. My legs and feet tingled fiercely. My arms were lead and my guts were in a vice. The flesh of my neck threatened to merge with the seat-back.
By my final flight, I was giggling my head off. If you check out the human factors article, you can watch a video of me on my final “flight”.
I had a hard time handling my early rides – afterward, I was pale, shaky and disoriented, and developed a headache. Another woman got a nosebleed. If you want to make fun of me for failing to hit the full 6g mark, bear in mind that my ride still topped the gs experienced by professional astronauts when they leave our little planet.
Our instructor claimed to understand my fears because in his lifetime, he has made over 400 skydives, and used to get so nervous that he’d vomit beforehand – I hope his emesis bag was handy – but he learned to control his anxiety and persevered.
The kind man simply meant to lessen my fears of the STS, but I was left reflecting on the extraordinary reality of all human life. It’s amazing to me that human beings have the potential to quash our fears over something as horrifically unnatural as throwing your body out of a plane.
If anyone is looking for a journalist to send into space, I just might be up for it.