Get Set Go – a look at the training and prep before a suborbital space flight

Preparing to launch

Jeff Bezos became the second billionaire last year to reach right at the edge of space on a space flight, while being aboard a rocket made by his company, Blue Origin. The founder of Amazon had three crewmates aboard on his New Shepard vehicle – his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk.

But before Bezos and his three crewmates launched into space on 20th July 2021, they had to go through more than a dozen hours of intensive flight training. Now, this was an 11-minute flight that gave them three minutes of weightlessness before bringing them back to earth. However, the first-timers flying on New Shepard had received fourteen hours of training for two days before they could start their journey. 

So, whether the flight is of eleven days or eleven minutes, the training and prep are crucial aspects of any suborbital space flight. This is understandable considering the fact that these flights only have first-timers. 

On that note, here’s a glimpse of what individuals go through as they prepare to launch. 

General training for suborbital space crew 

For a suborbital space crew that spends about eleven minutes in flight, it is crucial to receive training in the ways to use the capsule for different nominal, off-nominal, and emergency procedures. It includes the common issues for which all professional astronauts receive training for, such as emergency mask usage, fire response, and exiting the spacecraft hurriedly on the pad. 

This training finally leads to mission rehearsals that cover all the possible scenarios, and ultimately there is a final exam. The final approval and nod for the launch takes place after the final exam is over and the crew is deemed ready. 

Training for the G-forces before the launch 

Now, the truth is that the G-forces faced during launch and reentry aren’t as intense as you might think. 

You might have watched the livestream of any astronaut launch or maybe a Hollywood movie about traveling to space. In all these movies, you might have seen how the astronauts get crushed right back in their seats during their launch and reentry. What they are facing is a strong G-force or a sensation of weight at the time of acceleration. 

It is similar to the feeling that you get while speeding up too fast in your car or zooming through loops or sharp curves on the roller coaster. However, during the launch of a rocket, these forces are more sustained and stronger. Though the experience sounds like something quite terrifying, it is actually quite manageable. 

The G-forces are never as bad as seen in the movies or comics. If someone is good enough to be medically approved for a suborbital trip, they are not going to face any issues in dealing with the G-forces.  

However, the crew will be made to go through several centrifugal runs at the time of training to help them prepare for the sensation. The individuals are strapped into a spinning machine that lets them face strong G-forces. It might feel a lot like those spinning amusement rides where people are pressed against the walls and gradually the floor drops. 

In order to make the launch and reentry absolutely comfortable on the body, it is important to physically relax the muscles such that there is no fight against the G-forces. The individuals are taught to relax and let their bodies sink back in the launch couch, so that they can tolerate it a lot better. They might hurt themselves if they are rigid. Also, the arms and limbs are supposed to be inside the couch. 

Scuba diving for weightlessness training 

Of course, everyone on a suborbital space flight does not go scuba diving. But it is strongly advised and many individuals opt for it. Though being underwater is nothing like floating in space, it is taken to be a good way to practice easy movements in weightlessness. As a matter of fact, NASA has a life-sized replica of the International Space Station set inside a huge pool to let the astronauts train for their spacewalks underwater. 

Movements in weightlessness tend to come to you really fast when you spend a couple of moments underwater routinely. In order to be neutrally buoyant below water, it is advised to gradually try to move along the bottom of the pool. It does not take too much force, but it takes quite a bit of thought. 

A bonding experience with crewmates ahead of the flight 

Scuba diving is not the only thing about NASA an individual can experience before their suborbital flight. Companies like Blue Origin make sure that the space tourists bond with the other crewmates at the ‘astronaut village.’ It is a small measure that replicates the training and tight quarters under which the professional astronauts become familiar with their crewmates right before going to space. 

There is a Blue Origin trainer called ‘Crew Member Seven’ (because there are six people in each flight), who helps the tourists feel comfortable about their experience at the time of orientation. The authorities have kept a classroom component, and they are also making the individuals work in a simulator that they have in their astronaut training center. 

Then, the crew members are also taken to the pad. Blue Origin wants to make sure that the astronauts feel well acclimated not just in the capsule, but also with the facilities present at Launch Site One, along with the overall team making the journey. 

Training for the ground team: A crucial part of the mission 

Now, though the ground team does not get into the suborbital space flight, they deserve a special mention because the flight would not even launch without their contribution. For instance, Blue Origin had fifteen uncrewed missions that were not successful because the ground team was still not trained properly. 

Moreover, ground capability becomes even more crucial for space tourism because the flight crew consists of non-professional astronauts. The idea is to make the vehicle and the launch safe enough to let people sit and go into space. Such capabilities are not possible to achieve without extremely capable ground staff. 

Get ready but not scared off bumps and bruises 

For anyone spending a couple of days in space, bumps and bruises are a part of the journey regardless of how trained they are. 

Usually, on the suborbital flights, people do not get too much time in space. Thus, there is no reason to think about acclimating to zero gravity. However, there are private spaceflight companies that send their clients up in orbit for a longer stay. For instance, Roscosmos has a twelve-day trip to the International Space Station and Axiom Space has the same trip for ten days. 

So, if someone is going to spend a few weeks or even a couple of days in space, they are going to bump their heads a couple of times, irrespective of how trained they are for their new experience. 

In fact, even the rookie astronauts on the first two to three days on their mission face the same issues, where they are like the proverbial bull in a China shop. They start pushing off with full force and end up banging their knees or bumping their skull. However, it’s nothing serious and there’s no need to be worried. 

The companies organizing the suborbital space flights take rigorous measures to ensure the absolute safety of the clients. 

The bottom line 

The training is a crucial part of the process. But it is understandable from the above discussion that the training is nothing that a physically and mentally fit individual cannot complete. It is simply a set of instructions and acclimating procedure before sending people off to their suborbital space flights. So, training is not a barrier for anyone planning their trip to space.


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