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Scientists learn space smarts

NASTAR Center
Suborbital spaceflight training includes sessions in the NASTAR Center's centrifuge.


Researchers are going back to school this week to learn what they need to know to do science in a spaceship - including how to deal with jaw-clenching acceleration and how to avoid getting distracted by the out-of-this-world view.

The first trainees in the Suborbital Scientist-Astronaut Training Course gathered today at the NASTAR Center in Southampton, Pa., to begin two days of classes, exercises and centrifuge spins. Their aim is to get ready for research opportunities at the edge of outer space when they become available, one or two years from now.

"I think the next two years are going to be fascinating," said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.

Stern and a colleague at the research institute, Dan Durda, are not only co-organizers of the training session - they're also among the trainees. Other scientists are coming in from Boston University, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Central Florida and the University Space Research Association.

"This is a group of highly motivated individuals who want to be ahead of the curve," Stern told me this week. Most of them already have experiments they want to fly in microgravity, and they're anxious to learn the ropes even though it's not yet clear exactly what kind of spaceship they'll be riding.

 

NASTAR Center
  A patch for the Suborbital Scientist-Astronaut Training Program has been designed by MIT student Tatsuya Arai.


Stern has called research a potential "killer app" for the suborbital spaceflight industry. For a tourist, the $200,000 fare for flying on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane may sound steep. But for a researcher, that's not a bad price for a few minutes of weightlessness. The cost of flying a comparable payload on a suborbital rocket could amount to a couple of million dollars, and there's no chance for scientists to ride along with their experiments.

So what should a scientist know before he or she takes the ride? During this week's session, trainees will get classroom training in spaceflight physiology, the ins and outs of the space business and how to manage your time when you have only four minutes or so to do your experiment.

They'll also spend time in a hypobaric chamber that simulates the low-oxygen conditions at an altitude of 18,000 feet. At that height, the air is thin enough to bring on the symptons of hypoxia, but not thin enough to cause serious injury.

Each trainee will get a turn in the NASTAR Center's centrifuge, which whirls riders around to simulate the 3.5 G's of acceleration you would feel from head to toe during a typical suborbital launch, and the 6 G's pressing down on your chest during re-entry. These are the kinds of acceleration levels that NASTAR has built into its training sessions for Virgin Galactic's future fliers, said Brienna Henwood, the center's business development and program manager.

Stern said the researchers will also be trained to focus on completing complex tasks amid the distractions that accompany spaceflight - such as fellow passengers who are whooping with excitement, bumping into you and gawking out the window.

Spacefliers can't let themselves get caught up in the "pretty scenery" when there's so much work to be done in just a few minutes, Henwood said. The researchers will probably have to adopt the no-nonsense, stick-to-the-checklist attitude that's long been associated with NASA astronauts. "When they actually go to space, they're not looking out the window so much," Henwood said.

The standard rate for the two-day course is $6,000 - but Henwood said the trainees were paying half-price for this week's class, thanks to the recruitment efforts by Stern and Durda. "Volume discount," she joked.

There was a waiting list for the session, and Henwood said another class (with another round of discounts) could be scheduled once 10 to 12 researchers sign up. "We're getting close to that," she said.

You can follow this week's exercise by tracking the Twitter updates from @theNASTARcenter, @AlanStern, @spacepurple (Joanne Hill from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center), @ad_astra2 (MIT's Erika Wagner), @awhizin (Akbar Whizin). Among the scientist-astronaut-bloggers are Joanne Hill, APL's Charles Hibbitts and UCF's Josh Colwell. There'll be updates from OnOrbit and NASA Watch as well.

Stern sees this week's session as just another step along the way to a new age of suborbital research. Next month, a larger group of scientists and space entrepreneurs are due to gather in Boulder, Colo., for a conference on the subject, with NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver as the opening keynote speaker. Stern said the event is shaping up as a "watershed moment in the growth of research and education applications for these new commercial spacecraft."

Is this trip really necessary? Few full-time researchers have been to the final frontier so far, but Stern insists that space has to become a place where science is routinely done ... by humans, and not just by machines. "If operating unmanned was such a great thing for science, then every lab in America would have been automated long ago," he told me.

Update for 8:15 p.m. ET: The first day of training held chills and thrills for the 11 trainees, according to Twitter updates passed along via the NASTAR Center's Suborbital list page. One of the trainees reportedly passed out during the altitude chamber tests. "Only 1 of 11 scientists lost it. That's a 91 percent success rate, folks," Stern reported in one of the updates.


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