The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SpaceShipOne landing
Simulating suborbital spaceflights will help ease concerns potential passengers will have about the experience. (credit: J. Foust)

Implementing the FAA’s commercial space flight safety and training guidelines

In the era of commercial enterprises taking private space travelers on suborbital flights, the safety and comfort of the passengers is paramount. The engineers of the budding private space launch providers are necessarily and appropriately focused on building the best spacecraft possible. This is as it should be; there will be no business if the vehicles can’t get up to space and back in one piece. However, as at least space medical expert recently observed at the recent NewSpace 2006 conference, hosted in Las Vegas by the Space Frontier Foundation, “Eventually, life sciences is going to be the long pole in the tent.”

As at least space medical expert recently observed, “Eventually, life sciences is going to be the long pole in the tent.”

The truth of that statement is implicitly recognized by the prospective launch providers, many of whom are participating in the newly re-formed Personal Spaceflight Federation. In a press release (“Personal Spaceflight Federation Announces Future Plans; Spaceflight CEOs Meet, Respond to New Regulations, and Hammer out New Agenda”, August 22, 2006) the organization indicates that “Earlier this year, the aerospace CEOs who make up the membership of the PSF met to discuss how to respond to new regulations proposed by the FAA.” The FAA responded favorably to this initiative, according to a comment by Patti Grace Smith, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation: “The Federation has made it clear that safety is their first concern. That is, and must always be, the vital link among all partners in the industry because it is the key to public confidence.” Safety is one of the organization’s declared priorities: “Distributing best practices while working towards voluntary industry standards in areas such as spaceport operations, crew and passenger training, and vehicle manufacture, operations, and maintenance.”

To ensure that such safety issues are acknowledged and addressed by the launch providers, the FAA has issued a proposed rule, titled “Human Space Flight Requirements for Crew and Space Flight Participants” (published in the Federal Register, Vol. 70, No. 249). The FAA clearly recognizes that this is an industry in evolution, and does not wish to constrain the growth or innovation of the participants:

The FAA does not, at this early stage of development of the industry, presume to anticipate what environmental stresses any particular crew member may have to endure to operate a vehicle. Nonetheless, although different vehicles may impose different stresses, those stresses are likely to include microgravity, acceleration, and vibration. Different vehicles and flight profiles may subject those on board to different stresses. The FAA therefore would not want yet to impose requirements that apply across the board, preferring, instead, to evaluate each separately through the licensing or permitting process.

In this proposed rule, the FAA makes several clear statements about the training and preparation for crew and passengers that launch providers should strongly consider. Those include training for abort scenarios and emergency conditions as well as demonstrating the ability to withstand the stresses of spaceflight.

Although the ideal scenario is to train crew and passengers in the actual vehicles and situations they will encounter, this is not currently practical, since these vehicles and situations don’t exist yet. Several alternatives are under consideration. Some suborbital vehicle builders believe training in stunt planes and using existing FAA training facilities should be adequate for the task. Incredible Adventures is offering a three-phased Space Flight Training program, using various jets available now or under development. One can always travel to Star City in Russia for real cosmonaut training, but for some would-be private space travelers, the cost could be prohibitive.

Simulation is a viable training alternative that the FAA explicitly acknowledges. Our organization, The NASTAR Center, or National Aerospace Training and Research Center, is building a facility in suburban Philadelphia to meet many of the FAA’s space launch training requirements for both crew and passengers. Incorporating years of experience building centrifuge-based flight simulation for the US Navy and Air Force, The NASTAR Center can provide realistic flight models of practically any spacecraft, including real-time G-forces, visual cueing, and other physiological effects. The goal is to provide as realistic a launch and reentry experience as possible, short of the actual flight. The NASTAR Center can also perform medical monitoring to gather data on the physiological effects of launch and reentry that the launch providers can use to improve their vehicles and operations.

Another aspect of training private space travelers is preparing them for the experience. Participating in a suborbital launch will be quite different from boarding a commercial airline flight. Participants can expect to experience anywhere from 4 to 7 Gs on launch and reentry, along with several other potentially confusing and stressful stimuli. If such stresses are encountered for the first time during a launch, or the participant is inadequately prepared, the sympathetic nervous system will most likely invoke its “fight-or-flight” response, and the participant may experience several adverse effects, including emesis (vomiting), making the whole experience rather unpleasant. This is probably not a situation someone who has paid in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $200,000 will enjoy, and their comments when they return to the ground might not reflect favorably on the launch provider.

Pioneers standing on the edge of the frontier of space tourism must understand and remember we are in the experience business. Not the space business and not the launch business.

Engaging in the training such as Incredible Adventures or The NASTAR Center provides can go a long way toward mitigating the effects of these physiological stresses. As one senior executive of the space training industry put it, upon launch, a private space traveler’s body might metaphorically say to her or him, “Oh, I’ve been through this before, and I didn’t die. This is good; I know how to handle this. I think I’ll look out the window and enjoy my ride.” Moreover, the training experience can be integral to the whole program. Instead of idly waiting for “The Big Day” of the launch, prospective travelers can train as much as they would like, as preparation, or just for the sheer analog thrill of it. This would serve to keep excitement and anticipation for the real experience at high levels.

Prospective space flight providers would do well to give deep consideration as to how they intend to handle the critical human element of their business models. As the Personal Spaceflight Federation has clearly acknowledged, if this component does not receive proper attention, it could cause quite a bit of damage to the nascent industry. As John Spencer incisively wrote in his book Space Tourism: Do You Want To Go? (Apogee Books, 2004, p. 38)

Pioneers standing on the edge of the frontier of space tourism must understand and remember we are in the experience business. Not the space business and not the launch business. Facilitating an individual’s experience of the unique qualities of space travel is our most important concern. All other technologies and issues must exist only to serve this overriding goal.

A properly designed and configured training program can be an integral element of that experience, while at the same time ensuring that the industry will have many favorable reports and repeat customers over the years.