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Suborbital vehicles will give those onboard the opportunity to experience weightlessness and high accelerations. Will people be prepared for them? (credit: Blue Origin)

The coming age of commercial spaceflight: some considerations

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As suborbital launch vehicles approach the implementation phase of their development, the emphasis on the human factors aspect of spaceflight seems to be increasing. Such was certainly evident at the last Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) in Broomfield, Colorado last month (see “2018 may (almost) be the year for commercial human suborbital spaceflight”, The Space Review, January 2, 2018). That is likely a very good thing. The NSRC is a terrific and fascinating conference, and the providers of suborbital launch services have certainly made some great strides over the past few years—Blue Origin in particular.

If we start from the premise that the humans need to become a spacefaring species, then it makes sense to not confine the experience to a handful of the anointed few.

When a company is in the initial stages of developing an aerospace technology, the FAA’s standard procedure is to maintain a somewhat “hands off” policy. This allows a fledgling technological innovation to be developed without being encumbered by rules and regulations right out of the starting gate. Such has been the case with the development of suborbital launch vehicles, and this philosophy apparently extends into the medical and training requirements for the flight participants as well. The FAA is known for its fairly rigid standards: licensed pilots have class I, II, or III medical certificates, which indicate that they have met the physical requirements for the different airmen categories and are “fit to fly.” But commercial spaceflight is brand new territory. So for the time being, they have very little to say about it.

Commercial suborbital (and to an extent, orbital) space flight providers are hoping to lower the bar regarding medical restrictions for space flight. Overall, this is a very good idea. If we start from the premise that the humans need to become a spacefaring species, then it makes sense to not confine the experience to a handful of the anointed few. Allowing more people to experience the space environment helps to condition the psycho-social mindset of the general population for venturing out into this new frontier. Taking a novel idea from an academic level to a visceral, living, breathing reality lays the bedrock for inspiration and further innovation.

But since there are currently no hard rules on who is to fly, for the time being it is incumbent upon the flight providers to make those determinations. That puts them in quite a difficult position, as the obvious and immediate financial incentive would be to allow everyone who has the means to fly, to fly. But of course that could easily and quickly lead to serious trouble. Blue Origin seems to be adopting the correct posture and will (with informed consent) fly its own scientists and engineers first.

The commercial suborbital (and, to a lesser extent, orbital) clientele seem to be divided into two very distinct groups of people. The first are the “tourists” who are interested in the experience of weightlessness and viewing the Earth from that lofty vantage point. They are largely comprised of wealthy businesspeople and individuals from the film, music, and entertainment industries who have the means to take an expensive joy ride. There is nothing illegitimate about this at all. In fact, with regard to laying the groundwork for becoming an interplanetary species, it may be extremely vital that they do fly.

The second group consists of researchers. These are typically people who were bitten by the space bug early. They are primarily scientists, engineers and aviators—many of whom have been potential NASA astronaut selectees. As such, they have a much firmer grasp of the actual undertaking—more than say, a rock star. But that’s not to say that a rock star, even one six months out of rehab, should not be allowed to ever fly. But he should not go first. Test the hardware and the software, human and otherwise, and allow the FAA to develop their criteria, and see where we end up.

The sensations of flight can be extreme, whether inside or outside the atmosphere, and can be very disturbing for someone who has never experienced them. When someone freaks out on a commercial airliner, the pilots land the plane and we all watch it on the evening news. These are significant events. Such freakouts are not necessarily a fear of flight. They are often a coalescence of other fears, such as a fear of crowds, confined spaces, disorientation, becoming ill, and so on, which combine and reinforce, resulting in a serious meltdown. Now add to that the anticipated public humiliation and shaming served up through viral streaming on social media.

A person can have any or many of these fears in a manageable form in daily life. But in such extremes of acceleration or disorientation, these fears can geyser to the surface and take their owner by complete surprise. So how does one prepare for this? Not surprisingly, training and more training seems to be the best answer. At last month’s NSRC, psychologist and researcher Janna Kaplan discussed her research that found, of those persons who participate in “zero-g” parabolic flights, five out of seven will become violently ill on their first round of arcs. That number drops precipitously to zero out of seven for those who have already experienced such flights. In this instance, the benefits of training are very clear.

Familiarization is critical is that it reduces anxiety, which is a major source of trouble when people enter extreme or unfamiliar environments.

Each person who wants to fly needs to do a complete self-inventory: an objective, realistic self-appraisal regarding one’s strengths and weaknesses. Pat yourself on the back for your strengths, then go get some training to offset your weaknesses. Chances are, they are the same as those of most other people: anxiety around space sickness, the adrenaline surge of sudden weightlessness, and high G loading. The NASTAR Center in Pennsylvania has a great training facility that includes a centrifuge, a hypobaric chamber, and other “fun rides” designed to test your mettle. Sign on for a class with Zero-G. Or simply spend some time in an airplane. You don’t’ have to get a license: there are plenty of pilots and instructors hanging out in the local airport lounges who love to do tours, aerobatics, and various things in-between.

This is all part of the familiarization process. The reason familiarization is critical is that it reduces anxiety, which is a major source of trouble when people enter extreme or unfamiliar environments. This was expanded upon at NSRC by Dr. James Vanderploeg. Anxiety is actually a clinical term for fear. Unfortunately, fear had become something of a taboo word in the age of human spaceflight. So why not examine it more closely? Anxiety rises in proximity to the unknown. Making the unknown more familiar will naturally reduce anxiety. Training is an experiential anxiolytic.

There is something called the General Adaption Syndrome, outlined by Hungarian endocrinologist Han Selye, which is essentially the hard-wired response of vertebrate animals to a perceived threat. It’s more technical term is the Hypothalamic-Anterior Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. The other component in this response involves a branch of the autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. The combined activation of these two systems is known more commonly as the “Fight or Flight Response.” As the term implies, it is an automatic response, taking place below the cortex (the thinking brain.) If you are faced with a threat to your survival, nature doesn’t want you to think it over too much. There’s no time for a committee meeting or a call to the lawyer. This immediate and automatic response is designed to keep us alive. Anxiety is the primer. This is why severe anxiety eclipses your capacity for rational thought. It’s a hard-wired shutdown, not a character flaw or personal weakness.

Any threat to wellbeing will trigger some degree of anxiety. Anxiety is meant to be a protective response. It fires up the neuro circuitry of vigilance and anticipation, particularly in situations that are novel, unknown, and potentially dangerous. Basically, we are creatures of the ground who have only been airborne for a miniscule fraction of the species’ existence. Earth-bound vertebrates who had no fear of height did not have a protective aversion to those potentially dangerous situations, and tended to evolve out of existence rather briskly. Dogs and cats know nothing about aerodynamics but when you watch them looking down in wide-eyed wonder from a high balcony, it’s clear that they have a strong disinclination to step off. So this fear of height is a deeply rooted instinct that was conducive to survival.

A wonderful example of the proper handling of anxiety involves space diver Felix Baumgartner. Prior to hir jump in October 2012, the future of the Red Bull Stratos project was uncertain due to skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s anxiety, which was triggered when he put on the helmet to his pressure suit. Psychologist Michael Gervais was called in to evaluate the jumper and eventually helped him get over his fear, via self-talk and what Gervais calls “combat-breathing.” Well, we know from the history books that he worked it out. Baumgartner’s candor in talking about his own anxiety is noteworthy. His courage is beyond question, as is his character as a person.

In order to commit to enhancing self-management capability, one has to redefine what these new spaceflight technologies represent. They are not just some new futuristic amusement park. They provide a vitally important training ground for the future.

And so, one’s internal dialog plays a central role in mood, more than most realize. For instance, persons suffering with depression tend to dwell on their flaws and how “nothing will ever change and I’ll never get what I want.” With anxiety, the dialog is very different: always anticipating the worst-case scenario. “What if this happens? What if that happens?” The internal dialog of the anxious person is characterized by a litany of “what ifs.” It’s as if they are so fixated on anticipating the next moment, they forget to live in the present. This is why anxiety is so crippling in any sort of athletic or musical performance. So, the laws of cyclic causality are very much at play. Mood drives the internal dialog and the internal dialog drives the mood. So if you break into this cycle and change one piece of it, its compliment will change accordingly. This is why meditative exercises and mind-quieting techniques can be very effective, and are used quite often in stress management.

The brain is a top-down power hierarchy where the most recently evolved structures exert managerial control over the more primitive early structures. But that doesn’t mean that these early brain structures will just roll over in supine obedience. That is why logically explaining to yourself that “there is nothing to fear” may only take you part of the way there. That’s where stress reduction techniques come into play. Such techniques as diaphragmatic breathing, autogenic training, mindfulness, biofeedback, and neurofeedback have been used very successfully in reducing or eliminating anxiety. The idea is to take responsibility for your own central nervous system (CNS) in order to be fully prepared. In other words, the idea is not to be overly alarmed by your own fear responses. They are normal. The CNS is adaptable. After all, it wouldn’t have delivered us this far if it were rigidly resistant to changing environmental conditions. It is trainable. Think of it as a dog requiring a little more housebreaking.

In order to commit to enhancing self-management capability, one has to redefine what these new spaceflight technologies represent. They are not just some new futuristic amusement park. They provide a vitally important training ground for the future.