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.