Since Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson and Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos flew into space last month, the question of how to train for such an experience has become a priority. It’s been a long time coming, but suborbital space tourism is now a reality.
The beauty of waiting over a decade for my own VG flight was that there was a lot of time to train for it. While training is not required – VG works in their Future Astronaut Program a few days of prep at Spaceport America in New Mexico before the flight – I thought about designing my own regimen to mimic the actual experience as best I could. could. That way when my seat number pops up – I should be on Flight 102, if not sooner – I’ll know what to expect. In my opinion, there are three main areas to be aware of: the extreme air speed and altitude, the weightlessness and the intense G forces felt during takeoff and reentry.
To get a feel for the supersonic speed and the high altitude views, I traveled to Russia for a flight to the edge of space in a MiG-25 Foxbat fighter jet. We were supposed to reach an altitude of 84,000 feet. Up there, nearly a third of the height of VG’s SpaceShipTwo, the darkness of space, the curvature of the Earth, and the thin atmosphere hanging over the planet are said to be visible. Sure enough, when we reached climax, the band of air enveloping the planet was incredibly thin – a curved sliver of blue-violet light against a black background. To reach this level, we had to reach Mach 2.6, a little over two and a half times the speed of sound. VG’s SS2 peaked a bit above Mach 3, so we were pretty close. It was difficult to judge the speed, because the higher you climbed, the fewer reference points you could see.
Then there was a zero-G flight in an Ilyushin-76 (the equivalent of the American “emetic comet” KC-135 in which NASA astronauts train), still in Russia. In bursts of 30 seconds each on the diving part of the parabolic flight, you are completely in zero gravity and learn to face the unknown environment. My first instinct when I was floating was to breaststroke towards something, like when I was a lifeguard when I was a teenager. Bad move. Since we were in the air, not in the water, I didn’t go anywhere. You learn that in order to head in a particular direction, it has to push something, and then it will move unimpeded in the opposite direction of the push. It was also cool to open a bottle of Evian, say, and then try to catch the water marbles coming out of the top in your mouth. We flew a total of 10 dishes in zero gravity. I can see why they call these planes “vomit comets”. If we had done another one I probably would have fallen ill, as did three of our group.
Finally, I went to train, this time in the United States, in the NASTAR centrifuge near Philadelphia, PA. The circular apparatus, which spins like a giant “clock hand” with the test subject in a sort of crucible at the end, is able to simulate G forces similar to those that will be experienced in VG flight, with a maximum of 6 G, or six times its body weight. We have learned to breathe with essentially the weight of a small elephant on our chests, using what is called the “hook maneuver” (look upwards) to keep the blood in the upper torso. It’s not easy, but it works. So I won’t be surprised and will be ready to deal with similar G forces encountered in SS2. And, believe me, we will experience them.
By the way, the fifty or so astronauts I’ve interviewed over the years, including Sen. John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin, all say to focus on the view from space, not the weightlessness, the speed of the craft or the G forces. Seeing the Earth up there is supposed to be life changing. I got a little taste of it in the MiG, and can’t wait to see it from above. Let’s light this candle and start this party!