License to Thrill
Meet the first commercial rocketship pilots.
- By Michael Belfiore
- Photographs by Chad Slattery
- Air & Space magazine, March 2009
(Page 3 of 3)
The NASTAR center is the only non-government-operated facility in the world where civilians can undergo high-G training. I signed on for the center’s one-day “spaceflight lite” program, which subjected me to only half of the maximum G-loads of a SpaceShipTwo flight. The full-G, two-day program that Virgin Galactic offers as part of the price for a rocketship ride would have cost $5,800 and required a flight physical as well as an ambulance on standby at the center. Still, the light version was enough to give me a sense of what spaceflight would subject me to. After Brienna Henwood, director of commercial business, strapped me into the capsule—complete with projected images of altimeter, G-load, and Mach number gauges and a simulated view out the front and back of the spaceship—and secured the hatch behind me, an automated voice provided a countdown from the control room. The reassuringly professional voice talked me through the drop from the mothership (accompanied by a gentle rocking of the capsule), and then the rapid buildup of Gs as the rocket motor fired. As instructed by King in a classroom earlier, I tensed my legs and forced air through pursed lips to blow away the grayness creeping in on the fringes of my vision as the blood tried to drain from my brain.
King had shown me and a fellow student a video of himself in the fighter cockpit mockup, undergoing gravity-induced loss of consciousness. It wasn’t pretty. His eyes rolled back in his head, his head flopped forward, and his hand fell from the control stick in the centrifuge. Granted, at that point he was up to 9 Gs, but even SpaceShipTwo’s 6 Gs could knock out a pilot who doesn’t start proper breathing and straining maneuvers to keep the blood in his head well in advance of the high Gs. King explained that once the blood has drained from your head, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to force it back up your neck. For commercial space pilots, high-G training will be essential.
To all the other qualifications of a commercial spaceship pilot, one might add that of company spokesperson. Former Air Force test pilot and NASA space shuttle commander Rick Searfoss is now chief test pilot for XCOR Aerospace, yet another spaceflight startup based at the Mojave Airport. He puts his experience as a professional speaker to good use during XCOR press conferences and public events like the rocket-powered airplane flights he made last summer for XCOR and the Rocket Racing League at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in. Commercial space pilots will necessarily become some of their companies’ most visible representatives in selling the experience of spaceflight to potential passengers. Regarding a space pilot’s more formal qualifications, “obviously I’m showing my bias here,” says Searfoss, “but I believe it would be advantageous to have the disciplined, uber-professional training and background of a former military pilot, particularly a formal-course graduate test pilot, for any commercial spaceflight operations.”
XCOR’s planned one-pilot, one-passenger, jet-fighter-size suborbital rocketplane, called Lynx, will glide through its descent, since none of the craft’s kerosene fuel will remain after the boost to space. Lynx will take off on its own from a runaway and reach an altitude of about 200,000 feet. Although the craft is still under construction, Searfoss has flown XCOR’s rocket-powered technology demonstrators. “Imagine a small, light, experimental homebuilt like a Long-EZ, which flies very nicely to begin with,” he says. “It has light stick forces. It’s a nice flying airplane if you’re a fighter pilot. But then without a reciprocating engine...it’s just smooth as silk to fly.”
Searfoss says piloting a rocketplane is “all very much the case of just managing your energy.” With no fuel left in the tanks for a landing, says Searfoss, “it’s just a question of doing exactly what glider pilots do, exactly what a shuttle commander does...to just position yourself to get to the endgame: stopped on the runway safe and sound.”
So far, XCOR’s space pilot corps is a one-man show, but the company anticipates hiring more pilots after Searfoss flies the first Lynx flight tests to space, which it hopes will take place by next year. “We have a few in mind, not at liberty to say who, but they have military backgrounds as well,” says Searfoss. He and his colleagues haven’t yet worked out a program for training new pilots, but it will most likely include high-G training in acrobatic aircraft and time in XCOR-built simulators. There will not be much, if any, zero-G time.
As for me, I can breathe and strain with the best of them, but I’ll leave the piloting to the professionals. Besides, when I hit zero G, I want to be free to move about the cabin.
Michael Belfiore is the author of Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space and a forthcoming book about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.