During one of the few memorable sequences in the critically mauled 2002 movie Time Machine, our hero (Guy Pearce) travels into the future and we see the world change around him. Cars replace carriages, mechanical becomes electronic, a new city rises, but Pearce remains insulated within the bubble of his Victorian time machine.
The same thing has happened to the 60-year-old human centrifuge at Farnborough in southern England. Once part of a military facility, then enclosed within an industrial estate, today it is surrounded by a modern housing complex. But compare the three-storey-high circular brick building with pictures from the day it was first opened in 1955, and it looks exactly the same.
This weird out-of-time feeling continues when you enter the reception area – a bare room containing an immaculate 1950s desk – or climb the concrete stairs to the conference room, where 50s stackable metal chairs surround a long wooden table. Even the walls have a curiously old-fashioned Ovaltiney hue to them.
The control room has a decidedly 1950s look thanks to the retro console (Credit: John Watkins)
However, the man sitting at the table is clearly from the future.
Dressed in a dark green single-piece survival suit, zipped up to his neck with wires and tubes attached to his legs and chest, Ed Martin looks every bit the aviator of tomorrow. The Right Stuff demeanour is diminished somewhat by long beads of sweat dripping down his face – the unfortunate consequence of wearing the latest air force winter gear in an overheated room in late summer.
Martin is a volunteer, kitted-out to test prototype anti-G trousers. Issued to aircrews, these are linked to aircraft avionics to inflate during high acceleration manoeuvres – forcing blood away from the legs towards the brain to prevent pilots from blacking out.
The anti-g trousers inflate to push the blood back up into the chest – Des Connolly
In use for decades, these outfits are essential in modern fighter aircraft, such as Britain’s Typhoon, and will almost certainly need to be used in the space and rocket planes of the future.
“The anti-g trousers inflate to push the blood back up into the chest,” says Des Connolly, the medical doctor overseeing today’s study. “So instead of the blood being pushed towards the legs, blood pressure is maintained to help force blood up to the head.”
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The particular pair of trousers Martin is wearing use new materials, although for obvious security and commercial reasons no one at QinetiQ – the defence and space company that runs the facility – is going to tell me exactly what is innovative about them. They will, however, let me watch as they subject the legwear – with Martin inside them – to a terrifying experiment.
“I’ll be spun round at 9G – that’s nine times the force of gravity, increasing my body weight nine times,” Martin explains, as he is strapped tightly into a five-point harness. His seat – an ejector seat from a Tornado aircraft – is enclosed within a battered ovoid gondola swinging from the end of a 60-foot diameter metal lattice arm.
“I’ve done it quite a few times – it’s quite enjoyable,” says Martin, as I look at him with disbelief.
Pilots flying the RAF Typhoon are put through their paces in the centrifuge first (Credit: Getty Images)
The centrifuge arm sits at the base of a high circular chamber, beneath it a massive direct-drive electric motor capable of generating accelerations that – without the anti-g trousers – would cause most normal people to lose consciousness.
With Martin strapped in and connected up to heart and breathing monitors and his suit hooked up to the air supply, the experiment is ready to begin. The main chamber lights are switched off, leaving the gondola seemingly suspended in space. A technician closes the heavy steel door on the centrifuge hall and winds a wheel to secure it shut.
Up in the control room, overlooking the chamber, the computer whirrs into action. This machine too celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Full of gears, belts and shafts, the rare mechanical computer resembles a grey chest freezer. The program is a flat snail-shaped disc, known as a cam. Each cam is around the size of a vinyl record (and its shape determines the acceleration).
A dial in the control room shows the maximum G the device is capable of recreating (Credit: John Watkins)
When the controller hits the start button – and it is a proper, old-school, big button – on his retro-style Flash Gordon console, dials flicker, the computer disc rotates and the centrifuge spins.
Very, very fast.
This machine was designed to simulate accelerations for pilots and even astronauts, when it was thought (or perhaps hoped) that Britain would develop its own astronaut programme. Mid-1950s rocket designs suggested that extreme accelerations would be needed to reach orbit. As a result the G-force meter on the wall goes up to 35G – although it was soon realised that no human would be able to endure such extreme forces. These days the maximum allowed is 9G.
The tech may be mid 20th Century but the experiments are still being used to test the latest avionics and space equipment.
The gondola can be reconfigured to simulate the accelerations of spaceflight
“Despite the fact it’s 60 years old, this year it’s probably going to be used more than any previous year,” says Connolly.
As well as investigating the performance of the latest anti-g trousers, current experiments include studies of night vision goggles and how specific exercises might help prevent back and neck injuries under high G forces. Another concern is the effect of prolonged acceleration on the lungs.
“The lowermost parts of the lungs tend to collapse under high-g levels when you’re breathing high concentrations of oxygen,” says Connolly. “Pilots are reporting coughs and pain behind the breast bone and it might mean a tendency towards oxygen deficiency during flight.”
Subjects are strapped into the gondola before it starts to spin (Credit: Qinetiq)
Unlike a modern centrifuge, the Farnborough machine is also versatile. Although most of the current work involves military aircraft, the gondola can be reconfigured to simulate the accelerations of spaceflight. Several space tourists have already trained in the machine and QinetiQ hopes to win more customers as the industry develops.
After a few test runs, we are nearing the climax of the experiment. The centrifuge acceleration builds until the volunteer is put through a simulated combat manoeuvre.
“Stand by, 9G to start…,” says the controller.
We hear Martin’s heavy breathing rasping through a 1950s era wooden loudspeaker as the centrifuge spins, like a Catherine Wheel, in the darkness beneath us pushing at the limits of human endurance.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” claims Martin when it’s all over. “It was fun.”
Martin survives and the new techno trousers seem to perform well. That must count as a result.
With 60 years on the clock, this technological relic from before the dawn of the space age seems likely to last well into the era of electronic warfare and commercial space exploration.
“This is the busiest year in the centrifuge’s history,” says Connolly, “so we don’t see it becoming redundant anytime soon.”