WASHINGTON — As a privately operated astronaut training school in California announced its arrival into a suddenly crowded market, the chief executive of a similar company in Houston said his firm is planning to open its doors in March — nearly a year later than planned.
The newest entrant, the Star Harbor Space Training Academy, will be located in either San Diego or Long Beach, California, according to a Sept. 14 email from consultant Alan Ladwig, a fixture on the space policy scene who left his position as NASA’s deputy associate administrator for public outreach in 2013.
With the addition of Star Harbor, there will be at least three private U.S. spaceflight training facilities, the other two being the Houston-area company Waypoint 2 Space and the Nastar Center in Southampton, Pennsylvania.
Only Nastar is open today. The center has graduated 450 spaceflight trainees since it began operations in 2007, said Brienne Henwood, the facility’s director of space flight training and research.
The training regimes Star Harbor and Waypoint 2 Space plan will be similar to what Nastar already offers: simulations of g-force loads through centrifuges, aircraft flights or both; high-altitude simulations with either normobaric or hyperbaric chambers that simulate oxygen-thin atmospheres; and models of several spaceships to help aspiring astronauts get comfortable with the internal contours of their ride to space.
Star Harbor, for example, will offer “parabolic flights on a Boeing 757, a centrifuge, hyperbaric chamber, and a neutral buoyancy tank to name a few of the capabilities,” Ladwig said.
A neutral buoyancy tank is a pool where astronaut trainees in pressurized suits practice spacewalking — extravehicular activities, or EVAs, in NASA parlance — in conditions similar to microgravity. NASA has such a facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Waypoint 2 Space is also considering a neutral buoyancy tank, the company’s president and chief executive, Kevin Heath, said in an Oct. 2 interview. But that is not the company’s first choice for spacewalk training. Instead, it is trying to raise $83,000 on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.com for a device called a Modular EVA Training System.
The campaign began Sept. 18 and had raised nearly $6,500 as of Oct. 3. That left 36 days to raise about another $75,000 to build the system, which would be installed in a warehouse in Clear Lake, Texas near NASA Johnson.
The Modular EVA Training System would use a combination of virtual reality, wires and harnesses to simulate weightlessness, darkness and the exterior of the spaceship on which the trainee is practicing. The system is similar to a NASA device known as the Active Response Gravity Offload System that Waypoint 2 Space wanted to license. However, Heath told SpaceNews, NASA decided not to license the technology after an astronaut training accident at Johnson.
“They said they had an incident where the system dropped an astronaut about 12 inches,” or less than a third of a meter, Heath said. “Nobody was hurt but it made them concerned about the system. So the gist of it is, we can’t have it.”
NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean did not reply to a request for comment for this story.
Waypoint 2 Space will probably aim to open in March whether or not it can raise money for the spacewalking device, Heath said. Heath and an angel investor have already sunk a combined $1 million into the company, including $200,000 of Heath’s own money.
Waypoint 2 Space has also raised about $2.5 million from Houston-area investors, which will pay for just about every piece of training equipment the company needs at Clear Lake except the spacewalking simulator, Heath said. That covers a normobaric chamber and arrangements with an unidentified provider of what Heath called “acrobatic aircraft flights,” which in lieu of a centrifuge will provide Waypoint 2 Space trainees with exposure to high g-loads and steep angles of ascent and descent.
Earlier this year, Heath said Waypoint 2 Space would be ready to start training in June. That date slipped, he said, because the company has had to completely reinvent its business model. Initially, Waypoint 2 Space thought it could start training customers on NASA-owned facilities at Johnson.
NASA never formally rejected the idea, but “we were told through the grapevine that NASA legal had decided that this was not something NASA was going to do.”
Being unable to use a secure U.S. government facility has a positive side, Heath said.
“At NASA we could not train foreign nationals,” Heath said. “People from friendly countries, we could not train them because they would not be allowed on NASA without a lot of paperwork, and it’s a nightmare.”