Practicing for a trip to the inner edge of space
June 2, 2010 |  by Michael Anft

Karl Hibbitts’ pre-adventure adventure made him dizzy and nauseous, forced him to try and move the blood in his legs and torso up toward his woozy head, and spun him around like a top. And, he claims, he loved every minute of it.

During a two-day simulation experience earlier this year, Hibbitts, a senior staff scientist and geophysicist at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), learned how to physically deal with the next wave in extraterrestrial travel: suborbital space flights. While literally shaking through a regimen at the privately owned National AeroSpace Training and Research Center (NASTAR) in Philadelphia this winter, Hibbitts and 11 other scientists were forcibly exposed to both low and high levels of gravity, the airlessness of space, and a centrifuge that spun them around to give them an idea of what it feels like when a space ship descends and accelerates back toward Earth.

“I got nauseous because I turned my head when I was spinning in the centrifuge—even though they told me not to move it,” Hibbitts says of being temporarily turned into a human martini. “But it’s the most amazing effect. It’s really hard not to look around and check out what’s happening.”

Hibbitts, dressed in an aviator’s helmet and flight suit, took part in the simulation in preparation for trips he plans to make to the edge of space—above the atmosphere but below the level of orbiting satellites. Along with tens of thousands of tourists, experimental space scientists are lining up to be among the first to take short suborbital flights once they become commercially available within the next year or two. Private companies—including one owned by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, the British airline, music, and telecommunications mogul—have indulged in a space race of sorts to see who can develop the technology to regularly send a hybrid of a plane and a rocket into the ether and then bring it safely back to Earth. (Suborbital space is between six and 60 miles above our planet.)

Initially encouraged by the Ansari X Prize, a foundation-led contest that offered $10 million to the first company to launch the same manned spacecraft twice within two weeks (it was awarded in 2004 to Mojave Aerospace Ventures’ SpaceShipOne project), the so-called spaceplane industry has invested more than $100 million into figuring out a way to make space nearly as reachable a destination as, say, Spain.

When that happens, the payoff will be found in the pent-up demand among rich nonscientists who will spend $100,000 or more for a brief flight—with only two to five minutes of real “space time.” Scientists like Hibbitts hope they’ll get some preference to tag along on the tourist jaunts, and eventually make less expensive trips on their own. Such excursions would greatly aid Hibbitts in his quest to find evidence of water on asteroids, the moon, and perhaps Mercury. To see signs of water and carbon dioxide on those celestial bodies in useful infrared wavelengths, Hibbitts must travel above the water in Earth’s atmosphere.

“These suborbital flights open up the possibility of routine space trips,” says Hibbitts. “What NASA does is very expensive one-offs. They might be perfectly done, but very few scientists get to do work in space.”

Suborbital travel will aid scientists by repeatedly taking them to places they hadn’t been to before—so they can perform repeat experiments—and by costing one-tenth of the price of a trip on a NASA vehicle. “We can send an experiment in a shoebox up into space on one of these vehicles for about $1,000,” says Alan Stern, chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Suborbital Applications Researchers Group, which is working to make sure science has a place on such trips. “Suborbital flights have the added advantage that they’re developed by private industry, so governments won’t have to underwrite them. Tourists will help pay the freight.”

Hibbitts’ simulation exercise, which cost APL $3,000, involved being hooked up to oxygen in a hypobaric chamber to simulate the effects of high altitude on the human body, including low levels of oxygen and pressure. He lost some level of consciousness before being pulled out of the chamber. NASTAR facilitators taught him “the grunt maneuver,” in which space travelers constrict their legs and stomach muscles to keep blood flowing to the brain so they don’t pass out. Hibbitts was also exposed to the increasing forces of gravity that attend coming back to Earth. (“It felt like an elephant sat on my chest,” he says.) And he got an idea of how to work in a tight, confined space, perform an experiment during a small window of time while there, and stow his equipment away again.

Noam Izenberg, another APL senior professional science staffer, was slated to take part in a similar exercise in June. Like Hibbitts, he’s excited about the simulation and what it represents. He wants to use suborbital travel to test how a sandbox filled with sand and pebbles reacts when struck by a hammer in low gravity, so he can make estimates of how seismic waves in space affect asteroids. But he admits there is a wide range of possibilities that he and other scientists have yet to imagine.

“This is a whole new box,” Izenberg says. “We haven’t even begun to think inside it yet.”