Even when pretending to go into space it’s the waiting that is the worst. Or so I thought.
I am strapped into a fighter pilot’s seat at the centre of a battered metal pod, not much larger than an aircraft toilet compartment. There are Perspex windows on either side but I stare straight ahead into the lens of a video camera. All I can hear is my heart. Its exaggerated beat seems to be reverberating around the cramped cabin. I am not entirely sure what do with my arms, so I rest them on my legs. My fists are clenched.
Over almost 60 years, thousands of people have sat in this exact same position, preparing to be flung around a circular room on the end of a metal gantry. Opened by the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the mid-1950s, the human centrifuge at Farnborough in southern England was designed to put pilots and astronauts through the rigours of the g-forces generated during acceleration. To see if Britain’s finest could keep it together during climbs, dives, lift-offs and re-entries. To check if they had the Right Stuff to make it as a top gun or space cadet.
In the 21st Century, this monster machine is still being used by the Royal Air Force and other professional aviators, but the defence and space company that now operates it, QinetiQ, is also starting to see interest from the next generation of spacefarers: that’s tourists, and the companies offering to fly them. After all, if you are planning to pay anything up to $250,000 to be accelerated into space at twice the speed of sound and flung back towards the Earth at around 4g – in other words making your body feel four times its normal weight – then it is probably useful to try the experience beforehand. Especially as this level of g force isn’t far from the range at which regular people like myself could lose consciousness.
As it turns out, the waiting is not the worst.
A voice comes from the public address system: “Okay, Richard, we’re just starting now and the g will come on as it accelerates.”
“Okay,” I mutter in response.
Then it starts. A sudden acceleration, forcing me back into my seat and spinning the capsule to a horizontal position. I truly feel I am flying. And I do not like it at all.
“This is horrible,” I wail over the public address system as the walls flash past me. Every second seems to be stretched, so I can experience the full horror of the ride.
And then, almost as suddenly as it started, the arm slows and the capsule lurches back to the vertical – a sickening jolt, like the most awful aircraft turbulence ever.
That was definitely the worst part.
I am told the acceleration only lasted 15 seconds at 2.4g. It felt more like 15 minutes.
A medic, sitting at their station in the centre of the gantry axis, monitors each g-force volunteer on closed circuit TV and can stop the centrifuge if anything goes wrong (or if the journalist on board panics too much). The monster machine is operated from a control room in a gallery above the centrifuge hall and has changed little since the machine was first built.
The control console itself could be straight out of Flash Gordon. It epitomises how the future ought to look. The operator sits in front of a control lever, surrounded by dials, knobs and gauges. There are bulbous flashing lights and a retro microphone hangs from the ceiling. The computer that ensures the centrifuge runs at the correct speed is not a modern computer but a grey metal box, around the size of a large fridge. The electronics inside are valves, and the program is a solid plastic disc, which fits onto a spindle in the top – a bit like a vinyl record (although it appears to be made of a suitably old-fashioned plastic like Bakelite). Each disk corresponds to a different g-force, ranging from a timid two to a terrifying ten. The clock-sized gauge on the wall actually goes up to 20. Most people struggle at more than five. Unlike in the James Bond film Moonraker, I’m disappointed to see there is no red danger area on the dial.
This machine has clearly not been built for fun. “The major threat for fast jet pilots is something we call g-induced loss of consciousness or g-loc,” says Jon Scott, Senior Scientist in Qinetiq’s Human Sciences division, “When they perform loop the loops and sharp turns, the g-forces push blood into their feet and we need blood supply to our brain to stay conscious.” At even relatively low g-forces, pilots experience impaired vision as the blood pressure to their heads drops.
“A centrifuge is a nice safe place to train people,” he explains. “Obviously if you go unconscious in a fast jet then the problem is significant.” However, even in the fastest jets, pilots only experience a few seconds of extreme g-force at a time. For astronauts those forces last a lot longer and that is why they lie on their backs for launch and re-entry.
“Something we learnt early on from centrifuges is that if you re-orientate someone with respect to the direction of the g force, so the force comes in through their chest and out through their back, then people can tolerate a lot more g,” says Scott. “So all we did with astronauts is re-orientate them within the space vehicles. It’s not pleasant but you stay conscious and you stay safe.”
To prove how unpleasant a higher g-force can be, I am being prepared for another spin. The medic agrees that my problem appears to be psychological rather than physical – anyone who is reasonably fit ought to be fine. So this time I am determined to keep it together.
“Stand by, 3g, 15 seconds.”
Up in the control room, the operator presses the start button and the disc rotates on the computer. In the capsule, I grip the padded armrests as the capsule spins.
Keep it together Richard.
I attempt a running commentary, more a stream of consciousness, relayed to speakers around the building: “I’m being pushed back…my hands feel really heavy…legs feel heavy…feet being pushed down…my head pushed back…I can feel my face being stretched.”
Then it suddenly slows, the capsule tips back to the vertical and I feel briefly weightless as the acceleration subsides.
The ride is definitely less awful than the first time, but I practically rip the harness off, trying to get out, and stagger from the capsule. The medic is disappointed, certain that I could have handled more.
Space tourist companies include centrifuge training as part of their preparations, but my advice to budding space tourists is this: before signing your life-savings over to Richard Branson or any of the other space tourism companies, experience the g-forces of spacefight on Earth first. And see how you fare.
There is also something else to keep in mind as well, particularly for the first space tourists: Whichever company you sign up with, the profiles for these flights are similar. You will accelerate out of the atmosphere, then experience four-to-six minutes of weightlessness, before decelerating back down to Earth. Very few people have flown this sort of mission and the data on the effects on the human body is patchy.
Studies show that the body adapts almost immediately to weightlessness but that astronauts struggle to readjust to gravity and the accelerations of re-entry. “So we can assume,” says Scott, “that four minutes of microgravity, proceeding 3 or 4g on the way down, will have quite a significant effect. What we don’t know is how much, because we can’t recreate that situation here on Earth.”
Which means that the first space tourists are going to be part of a fascinating medical experiment. “In a strange sort of way, yes,” Scott admits. “We’d very much like to hear their experiences to fill a gap in our knowledge and hopefully inform manufacturers about the effects of flying in those types of vehicles.”
Despite this, all the potential risks and my traumatic centrifuge experience, if I had enough money for a spaceflight, would I do it?
Of course I would.
But I won't enjoy it.