Scientists Get Ready for Suborbital Flights

Researchers hoping to conduct scientific experiments on commercial suborbital spacecraft completed the first-ever round of training last week at the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center in Pennsylvania. The researchers hope to take advantage of the prospect of quick, low-cost and frequent access to the microgravity environment of suborbital space. They successfully went through full-flight simulation spins in a centrifuge and altitude chamber to simulate the physiological conditions that scientist-astronauts will experience during future missions to 100 km or more altitude. Additionally, they received training on how to best accomplish their science goals in the short 4-6 minute window of zero-g in an actual suborbital flight.


“Man, that NASTAR centrifuge was a kick!” said Dr. Alan Stern via Twitter following his turn in the multi-axis centrifuge. Stern is the chairman of SARG and a principal organizer of the scientist training program. “At 6 G’s you really feel like you’re hauling the mail. I can’t wait to fly a couple of flights to 130 km!”

The group consisted of 11 scientists, including graduate students, professors and researchers. “It was a great group; a really diverse group of researchers from planetary sciences, life sciences and space sciences,” said Erika Wagner, member of SARG – the Suborbital Applications Researcher Group.

Wagner said the training confirmed the growing interest in conducting research and education missions aboard commercial suborbital spacecraft.

“It was wonderful to see such a great show of interest from the science community,” Wagner told Universe Today. “When we first started this about a year ago, we heard some comments that there would be no interest in this. But the second class is already full and the third class is starting to fill up.”

Stern said the scientists invested their own time and money for the training, adding, “This is a true testament to the growing excitement behind the science potential of new commercial spacecraft.”

The training simulated rides aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, and the first day of the two-day regimen focused on altitude physiology and the challenges of decompression and spatial disorientation. The second day covered acceleration physiology and how to deal with increased G-forces.

“I think the training itself really made it real for us,” Wagner said. “We’ve been talking about suborbital science for over a year, and up until now it has been a sort of abstract thing. To suddenly be able to work out the details of how an experiment will actually work during a suborbital flight is very important.”

Erika Wagner, Alan Stern, and Dan Durda. Credit:

Wagner said some of the attendees had previously participated in parabolic airplane flights, like the “Vomit Comet” where researchers have 15-25 seconds of time in microgravity to do the experiments. “They were able to see the similarities and differences much more clearly,” she said. “The great thing about suborbital is you get this nice extended time of zero g, 4-6 minutes depending on the provider. But the challenge is that you only get one shot per flight, whereas in a parabolic flight, although the time is shorter, you get several attempts.”

Wagner said perhaps the best training was how to use your time most efficiently.

“You’ve got to be ready to deal with the acceleration challenges of launch and not be surprised by them, and be prepared for the challenges of getting out of your seat, unstowing your equipment and conducting an experiment in what may be a somewhat chaotic environment,” she said. “If you’ve never thought about those details before you fly, you’re not going to get very good quality science. But I think NASTAR has done a good job of making it clear to the investigators that you really want to maximize your science.”

Therefore, the most important part of the training was the least ‘flashy,’ Wagner said. “We did an exercise ‘Distraction Factors,’ which simulated the amount of space you’ll have to do your experiment, giving you five minutes to get out of your chair, gather your materials, conduct your experiment, put everything away and get back in your seat while everyone else is doing very different things around you, and then prepare for reentry. It wasn’t flashy but it highlighted the challenges of doing quality science. And also it challenges investigators to develop more efficient experiments.”

Keith Cowing from, standing in front of the 25 foot centrifuge

Wagner said the most humorous, albeit sobering part of this training is that when they completed the exercise, the instructor asked them if they had seen what was on the wall. “We all said, ‘What? What wall?’ It turns out they had been showing beautiful images of the Earth and space on a huge wall to simulate what we would see from space, and none of us had any clue they had done that because we were so focused on getting the task done. That highlighted for us the amount of attention and practice it is going to take for us to do an experiment in a four minute period. Plus you’ll want to take time to enjoy the experience.”

SARG is sponsoring the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference on February 18-20, 2010, in Boulder, Colorado where scientists, engineers, educators, and vehicle developers will gather to discuss the research and education benefits of new commercial suborbital spacecraft. Associate NASA Administrator Lori Garver will be the keynote speaker.

“We want to inform researchers on this opportunity,” Wagner said,”and find out how they want to use the vehicles and any constraints they might have, and feed that back to the vehicle designers and flight providers.”

For more information:

SARG and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation
More pictures of the training from
Joe Hill’s blog describing his experience at the NASTAR training
Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference

One Reply to “Scientists Get Ready for Suborbital Flights”

  1. Interesting to see pics of Alan Stern suiting up for these NASTAR training events. I remember reading his personal accounts of flights undertaken by him in NASA F-16s and Learjets to look for possible bodies within the orbit of Mercury (so-called ‘Vulcan’ objects) a few years back. Definitely intrepid!

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