SAN FRANCISCO — The fledgling suborbital transportation industry presents unique challenges for a business that prides itself on knowing how to prepare fighter pilots and astronauts for arduous missions.
“We know how to conduct astronaut training,” said Brienna Henwood, director for space training research at the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center. However, training astronauts is far different from training scientists, educators or tourists planning to travel to a height of 100 kilometers in suborbital vehicles.
In the past, the only people who have flown in space have been astronauts or fighter pilots who passed rigorous fitness tests and completed extensive training, Henwood said. “Now, you’ve got some kid off the street who wants to fly an experiment,” she added.
NASTAR Center at a Glance
Mission: To support the training and research needs of the aerospace community, including military aviation,
civil aviation and space travel as well as research support for component and human factors testing.
Parent Organization: Environmental Tectonics Corp.
Location: Southampton, Pa.
Top Official: Richard Leland, President
Personnel: 10 employees
Moreover, the suborbital vehicles being developed by commercial firms are expected to put much greater forces on the human body than NASA astronauts experience in the space shuttle. Space shuttle passengers experience forces equal to three times the Earth’s gravitational pull, Henwood said. Suborbital vehicles under development will subject passengers to forces four or six times as strong as Earth’s gravity, said Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator for science and a senior adviser to the NASTAR Center. “Fit people can endure that and it’s actually fun, but you need to be familiar with it or you will pass out,” he added.
Stern, who experienced spaceflight training at the NASTAR Center before becoming an adviser for space and research related business, is helping the center design programs to prepare researchers to conduct scientific experiments during suborbital flights. The idea is to train scientists to perform experiments in a few minutes and without a lot of room to maneuver, while ignoring the distraction of other passengers and the spectacular view out the window, Stern said. “When scientists do that research, they have got to be laser-focused,” he added.
To achieve that focus, the NASTAR Center plans to offer distraction training for scientists preparing to conduct research onboard suborbital vehicles. That distraction training is only one element of the two- to three-day workshops the NASTAR Center plans to offer to help researchers and other suborbital passengers prepare for the physiological and psychological stress they will encounter in flight, Henwood said.
NASTAR Center workshops will give passengers the sensations of launch and re-entry using an altitude chamber and multi-axis centrifuge, Henwood said. The centrifuge, which features a cockpit pod attached to the end of a nearly 8-meter rotating arm, uses software to mimic the experience of riding in a specific aircraft or spacecraft. Passengers will experience sights, sounds, vibration and acceleration of rocket-powered flight, she added.
NASTAR Center officials also hope to work with NASA, researchers, space tourism agents and launch vehicle providers to determine who should be allowed to travel on commercial spacecraft. “You are going to have all types of people wanting to go into space,” Henwood said, including people with serious health conditions, children and the elderly. “Our job is to help forge this new industry and be the leaders in trying to figure out who is safe for space travel and who is not.”
In addition to providing training for orbital and suborbital flight, the NASTAR Center, established in 2007, offers training and simulation for tactical aviation and civil aviation. NASTAR Center employees also worked with Walt Disney World Co. to design the ride Mission: Space at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla.
The NASTAR Center, which is housed in a 2,800-square-meter facility in Southampton, Pa., features two large training bays equipped with 12 to 15 different types of training and simulation equipment. The center provides the showcase for the flight simulation and training equipment built by its parent company, Environmental Tectonics Corp., also of Southampton.
“It’s like an automobile showroom,” Henwood said. The NASTAR Center allows customers to see the simulators and “test drive” them before purchasing them, she added.
In April, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Commercial Space Transportation Office approved the NASTAR Center’s plans to train and qualify spaceflight crewmembers in its STS-400 Space Training Simulator. The NASTAR Center is the first and only company to receive FAA approval to conduct this type of space training, Henwood said. The NASTAR Center also is the official training provider for Virgin Galactic’s space transportation business, she added.
The NASTAR Center’s FAA safety approval covers human spaceflight of up to 12 times the force of Earth’s gravity in the direction that pushes passengers down into their seats and forces of up to eight times Earth’s gravity for the type of acceleration that pushes a person backward into the seat during takeoff. All normal commercial spaceflight profiles published to date fit within those limits, Henwood said. Since 2007, the center has provided spaceflight training for 220 people, she added.
Several firms are developing and testing reusable suborbital vehicles, including Masten Space Systems and XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas, Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., and Virgin Galactic, which is based at Spaceport America in New Mexico.