Inspiration4: what it’s really like to train for space tourism

Damien McElroy suffers the G force and weightlessness space tourists Bezos and Branson endured

Do they know what they are getting themselves into?

A crew of four aboard the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission will on Wednesday aim to become the first civilians to orbit the Earth as a new era in travel begins.

Veteran French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy believes the departure marks a step change in the story of humans in orbit. For the very simple reason that the people in the cockpit won’t command the flight.

“The job of being an astronaut consists of being an operator of complex machines in an extremely hostile, confined and isolated environment,” he told The National.

“The complex machines are the spaceship, the robotic arm and all the types of instruments.

“Traditionally we have selected only people whose job was to be operator of machines.”

So, what then of the people who will be in the Crew Dragon capsule riding on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket? Or indeed of the four, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, on the New Shephard rocket in July? Only Wally Funk, an 82-year-old pioneer of the space race, had technical credentials then, albeit decades out of date.

Space travel is certainly for the fit of body and body. Just to enrol in a training programme I needed an electrocardiogram carried out and a doctor to fill out a medical certificate of fitness.

The exhilaration of 17 rounds of parabolic flight came from a different experience of weightlessness on every round. Where else would you get to link arms in an airborne conga line with Richard Branson's space instructor?

The arduous pressures of breaking gravitational pull to loop into a position staring straight down at planet Earth from a lethal height must be experienced to know.

And the heavier taste of Michelin-starred cooking when eaten from a tin, just like a member of the International Space Station dines, would take some getting used to in the confines of a capsule.

A new venture is urging would-be astronauts sizing up the opportunity to go into space to “try before you buy”. Orbite Astronaut Orientation hopes to establish a worldwide chain of facilities for training and equipping space tourists and others like scientists for journeys into space.

Or at least make sure those lining up have a good grasp on what it entails — and what they will experience — before paying out to go into orbit.

The first training complex will be launched this year in the US. Founders Nicolas Gaume and Jason Andrews hope to then grow around the world, aiming for a foothold in the Middle East in the UAE later in the decade.

Twenty years after his last flight into space, Mr Clervoy maintains that he could still operate the control panel on that craft. “On the Crew Dragon even if you have some basic malfunctions, you have nothing to do on-board, it is all automated — automatically managed — on-board and from the ground,” he said.

“On September 15, the launch of Inspiration4 is for private passengers. They have replaced the docking system with a dome.”

Which begs the question — what do the astronauts stepping on to the Crew Dragon need to know before taking off? Or the future passengers of Virgin Galactic, on a craft that flies up to 96 kilometres above sea level, or the future passengers of the SpaceX Starship?

“Many of the new players are vehicle-centric, they are building amazing vehicles and putting all their energy into engineering excellence,” said Mr Gaume, a serial technology entrepreneur who is developing space-based agricultural businesses.

“We want to make sure we bridge the gap between the safety, engineering and technical levels to make sure that people elevate the experience to enjoyment of it.”

To break down the space travel undertaking, Orbite assembled experts in the foods astronauts eat, the zero-gravity experience that faces travellers in suborbital adventures and in capsules, like in the Inspiration4 mission, which will spend three days in orbit. Other aspects include briefings on the radiation exposure and psychological preparations that people should be willing to undergo.

“That’s why we say, ‘try before you buy’,” said Mr Andrews, an expert in rocketry who has been launching space-related ventures like small satellites for two decades. “If your body just reacts negatively, you may not want to spend your life savings to go to space and not have a great time. We’re here to allow anyone to experience space.”

Speaking at a family-owned hotel resort in France, Mr Gaume says experience of the tight-knit space community means they can open up the industry to the wider public.

“We deeply understand where each of the operators are planning to go and through virtual reality we can provide a real depth of knowledge so we can coach and support people to go into space.

Virtual reality on the launchpad

With a VR set it is possible to stand in the shoes of the astronauts as they walk up to the White Knight II craft that carried the billionaire Richard Branson to the edge of the atmosphere in July.

The edited package compiled by Orbite assembles all the current spacecraft outside a simulated hangar in the gravelly desert. Users can walk around the New Shepard, Crew Dragon and look down from a gantry into the rows of seats at the front of the mocked-up Starship.

To Brienna Rommes, Orbite director of astronaut training, who coached Mr Branson, this provides an experience of the Overview Effect, a shift in awareness reported by astronauts, often while looking at Earth from outer space. It also gives a small glimpse of the dark side of the Moon.

“It is my belief that the more people that can go into space and they can see it is only one planet and that is their home, they will come back and change their minds about being more environmentally conscious, consuming less and thinking more of humanity,” she said.

Zero gravity

Half-minute bursts of zero gravity are already on offer from the Novespace operation near Bordeaux in western France. A specially padded Airbus A310 takes passengers just above the height of Mount Everest’s peak at 8.5km. The parabolic flight begins with the pilot announcement “pull-up”, then weightlessness is experienced as the aircraft curves to a peak and drops back to Earth.

Excitement is palpable among the aspiring astronaut class. “I am ready for this and in, let’s say 10 years' time, I will be up and doing the real thing,” declares Julien Hemard, a business executive who has set himself the goal of space flight.

“I would like to do it for a full day so that I get the ‘full Monty' of that experience. I’m sure it will do something for me in terms of perspective on things and looking at the people, the planet in a different way.”

There are several stages designed to replicate different atmospheres, such as a parabola representing Mars gravity and that of the Moon.

“You will be like on the surface of Mars — that’s very easy, like press-ups on one finger — and then like the Moon which will allow you to make jumps and then the full zero gravity,” says the European Space Agency instructor helping passengers on the plane.

G-force in aerobatic planes

Becoming accustomed to the impact of different gravitational forces as rockets thrust the spacecraft from the troposphere through to the exosphere and beyond is also essential.

Aerobatic aircraft can take would-be astronauts through the different accelerations that lie ahead in a space journey. Not only do these planes rip straight up to forces of 6G but they also perform changes of speed in levelled-off flying and simultaneous changes in speed and direction in a series of loops. The essay question for anyone with space ambitions is, how many Gs can I handle?

Food and welfare

French astronauts are posted to the ISS where the crews enjoy rations provided in tins by the Michelin-starred chefs of the Alain Ducasse organisation. A comparison between the food in the tins and the just-cooked version of the ingredients highlights the spartan conditions of space travel.

Coaching on the necessary mental framework, the stresses that space and confinement will present, as well as how to adjust on return, is also destined to be part of the astronaut journey.

The civilians on the Inspiration4 mission — Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Hayley Arcenaux and Chris Sembroski — were sent to climb Mount Rainier in Washington State as a bonding exercise that lasted two nights and three days.

They were also put through runs in a centrifuge chamber to simulate lift-off, re-entry and splashdown. The apparatus, just like the training plane in France, replicated the pressures of 4 to 6Gs.

Whatever personal regimes that future flyers face, each has an ultimate shared ambition in the world beyond Earth.

For Mr Gaume the shorter flights offered by Mr Bezos's Blue Origin and Virgin are an “amazing first step”.

For his partner Mr Andrews, the cruise ship concept that the far larger Elon Musk Starship represents, glitters on the horizon. “I’m waiting for Starship and where we go — it’s like the difference between flying in a private jet with two people versus flying in a Boeing 747. The price on a very large aircraft will be lower.”

Updated: September 12th 2021, 10:41 AM
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