Virgin Galactic: We Don’t Anticipate Motion Sickness

by Elizabeth Howell on May 2, 2013

SpaceShipTwo durings its test flight on May 4, 2011. Credit: Clay Observator

SpaceShipTwo durings its test flight on May 4, 2011. Credit: Clay Observator

When the spaceship Enterprise — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, not the Star Trek spacecraft — fired its rocket engines for the first time in flight last week, it set off a new frenzy of talk about tourists flying in space.

More than 500 people have made their $200,000 reservations; the price is actually going up to $250,000 in the near future, according to media reports, to adjust for inflation.

Among those hundreds of people, it’s possible that a few could be susceptible to motion sickness.

In space, particularly when you’re floating around freely, it’s hard for your body to tell up from down. This can happen even if you’re sitting still; one astronaut once told NASA how freaked out his body was when he woke up in the morning, expecting to be lying on the right as usual. He was in that position, but staring at the ceiling.

When SpaceShipTwo goes to space, it will make one big parabola — soaring arc — before returning to Earth. It’s a similar trajectory to one cycle flown by the “Vomit Comet”, an infamous program run by NASA to do experiments and research on an airplane in temporarily weightless conditions. The aircraft dives up and down a few dozen times in a typical run, and the environment flips from microgravity to a pull that is much stronger than usual. This can create some heaving stomachs.

Trajectory of the Vomit Comet. Credit: NASA

Trajectory of the Vomit Comet. Credit: NASA

But let’s put space adaptation syndrome into perspective. Senator Jake Garn, when he flew on shuttle Discovery in 1985, famously became quite ill for reasons often attributed to motion sickness. After his return, there were those within NASA that began measuring the amount of space sickness in “Garns”, according to NASA physician Robert Stevenson in a 1999 interview with NASA. By that scale, illness problems are generally pretty mild.

Jake Garn, he has made a mark in the astronaut corps because he represents the maximum level of space sickness that anyone can ever attain, and so the mark of being totally sick and totally incompetent is one Garn. Most guys will get maybe to a tenth Garn, if that high. And within the astronaut corps, he forever will be remembered by that.

According to Virgin, though, they anticipate practically no Garns at all. Here’s what Virgin spokesperson Jessica Ballard (who is with Griffin Communications Group) told Universe Today:

Virtually no customers on board parabolic aircraft experience any motion effects on the first parabola. Since our experience could be thought of as one large single parabola, we expect very low incidence of any motion effects. In addition, our experience will also have significantly slower transitions between zero-g and positive G than parabolic flight, which we expect to improve our customers’ experience.

Thus, we anticipate that most of our passengers will not require motion sickness medication. The decision to use prophylactic [preventative] medication, and which form of medication should be used, will be made on a case by case basis with each passenger. Because of this, we’re confident that our customers will be both ready and eager to get up out of their seats once they reach space.

How susceptible are you to motion sickness, and does it occur for you in flight? Let us know in the comments.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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