My suborbital life, part 9: Anticipation, revealed
by Alan Stern
|The ride uphill on rocket power was the most thrilling thing I’ve ever experienced.|
How will ever I sleep the night before the flight? Turns out I slept really well the night before flight. In fact, I slept like a baby, though only for about four hours because of the combination of a late-night hotel room maintenance issue and a 3 am reveille on launch day.
What will go through my mind as we board spaceship Unity and strap in, and then in the moments just before release of the spaceship and the beginning of powered ascent up the altitude hill to the vacuum of space? As we boarded the ship, I was not processing the context of the flight in my life, or its risks, as I previously thought I might. Instead, I was just going through our often-rehearsed ingress checklist in a businesslike way. Boring, I guess, but a really calm and focused mood came over me the night before flight and it never left. Then, leading up to release, I have to admit I got pretty excited, but my comm headset disconnected from the ship’s intercom, so I was left stranded without communications and never heard the countdown to release, release, release—it just kind of happened out of the blue!Left: Myself and Kellie Gerardi on flight day, just before boarding spaceship Unity. Right: Myself during pre-flight parachute donning a few minutes later. (credits: Virgin Galactic)
How will the powerful rocket boost to space compare to full afterburner climbs I’d done in high performance aircraft? The ride uphill on rocket power was the most thrilling thing I’ve ever experienced, and I kept thinking during it, how amazing it was to be catapulted upward, upward, ever upward on our backs at 4 Gs so continuously. What a kick! It was, and remains, an addicting rush that I really can’t wait to do again next year on my second Virgin Galactic space flight!
Unity in boost on our flight! (credit: Virgin Galactic)
How will my own eyes perceive the blackness of space that so many astronauts have commented on? Here, like a couple of other places below, I’m afraid I have to report that I just don’t know, even after the flight. As a working researcher, I was just too busy with the ambitious operations checklist and tight timeline to really be able to stare at the blackness the way some suborbital tourists have. I’ll have to leave this question’s answer to some future spaceflight.
Will I easily recognize landmarks across the USA from the windows? Will there even be time for that? Honestly, the press of work on the three-minute-long microgravity portion of the flight kept me from registering any landmarks, though I did get to see the Earth, its curvature, its thin blue atmosphere, and its vibrant pallette of colors as a spectacularly vast canvas laid out below us. It was mesmerizing and really required me to tear myself away to get things done!
How scale-model 3-D will the mountains and clouds look nearly 90 ilometers (300,000 feet) below us? Fortunately, we flew early enough in the morning that there were significant shadows to help guide the eye to see scale-model relief. I wish I’d had more time to take that in though. It really has made me think that I want to fly orbitally now, and experience this in a more relaxed, contemplative way.
|I don’t believe I see the planet now any differently than I did before the flight, and I am quite sure that I didn’t have an Overview Effect. I was just too heads-down on work in the cabin for that.|
Will time dilate during the fleeting three or so minutes of microgravity when all of my in-space research and training activities take place? Or will it instead pass in an accelerated, blink-of-an-eye moment? I really didn’t know which way this would go. But now looking back, it’s clear that my experience was like the blink-of-an-eye scenario, and certainly not dilated or telescoped. I was just too busy accomplishing the nine flight objectives. I’m a little disappointed at that time compression, but job one for me as a researcher in spaceflight was to get the objectives completed as well as I could, and I’m happy that I can look back and say the flight batted 1.000, even if it now seems compressed into a metaphorical moment versus a long slow-motion reel in my memory.
How loud will entry be as Unity aerodynamically decelerates in the thickening atmosphere? It was very loud! Not disturbingly so, but it was a deep aerodynamic rumble all around us that made it impossible to talk unless you really raised your voice from the onset of entry until the vehicle slowed down to subsonic speeds.
How will I look upon our planet following the flight, having seen it from high beyond it? Will I experience the Overview Effect? Given how busy I was, and how little time I had to window gaze (maybe a combined 30 seconds split among the three or four out-the-window observation opportunities), I don’t believe I see the planet now any differently than I did before the flight, and I am quite sure that I didn’t have an Overview Effect. I was just too heads-down on work in the cabin for that. So many suborbital tourists have said they did experience the Overview Effect, probably most prominently Bill Shatner, that I’m sure it’s possible even on a suborbital flight. But it sure wasn’t possible for me on a short flight with a nearly all-consuming timeline of activities away from the windows so much of the time.
How will I ever sleep the night after the flight? I expected to lie awake processing the flight in my mind, over and over, but instead I fell asleep quickly, slept really well, and for a long time. The past six or so nights during the training leading up to the flight had all been very short ones for sleep, some as little as three hours. So, with a light schedule the day after flying to space and a real sleep debt built up, I slept unusually long for me the night after the flight, a full eight hours.
I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing how the things I anticipated turned out, and that not all were as expected!
Before closing here though, I do also want to say very clearly what an amazing experience the flight was, and how privileged it is to personally take part in a spaceflight. From the training to the flight day preparations to the boost to microgravity, seeing Earth for the first time from outside it, to reentry and landing—it was simply breathtaking. All my life I dreamed of going to space, and even more so I dreamed of going to space to work there as a professional. I lived that dream last week and despite not having much time to gaze at our spectacular planet, the flight, and its sights, sounds, and sensations were simply magical!
One of my favorite pictures of myself on the flight. (credit: Virgin Galactic)
I’ll write one more essay in a few days to sum up both the journey I took, and the new journey I am on as a result.
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