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Citadel News Service
28 Sep 2011

Physics cadets complete Suborbital Scientist Training

The Citadel could one once again see one of its own travel in space.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Randy Bresnik, Citadel Class of 1989, flew aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2009. While many a cadet aspires to fly in Bresnik’s footsteps, this past summer two physics majors took their first steps toward learning what it is like to travel in space. Luke Sollitt, assistant professor of physics, tells us about their training and his role in future space flight and observation.

For a week in July, two cadets from The Citadel and a student from Wofford College and another from Clemson University completed a Suborbital Scientist Training Program at the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center in Southampton, Pa. The training was part of their summer research with the Atsa Suborbital Observatory Project. Alongside the students were scientists from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz. 


Cadet Ryan Boodee does centrifuge training similar to that done by fighter pilots.

The Atsa Observatory is a small telescope that will fly on a commercial, reusable suborbital rocket. Flying to the edge of space allows the telescope to observe pristine light from an astronomical object, before it is affected by passage through Earth’s atmosphere. Light in certain wavelengths, particularly in the infrared and the ultraviolet, is absorbed by the atmosphere. Space-borne telescopes such as the Hubble, the Spitzer, and eventually Atsa, are able to observe the sky in wavelengths ground observatories cannot.

Atsa, a joint venture between The Citadel and the Planetary Science Institute, will also be able to observe targets that the larger telescopes cannot: in particular, it will be able to observe objects close to the Sun in the sky. If we point too close to the Sun, we will burn out a camera that is easily, and inexpensively, replaced. If Hubble or Spitzer were to burn out their cameras, then these billion-dollar missions would be in jeopardy.

This summer, four students helped to design of a proof-of-concept version of the observatory. Called the Atsa Armrest Camera, it will be installed inside the cockpit of XCOR’s Lynx Mark I spacecraft. It will be used during the engineering test flight series of that vehicle to explore how to make these kinds of observations.

All four of the students are now certified as Suborbital Scientists by the NASTAR Center. The students were participating under the auspices of the South Carolina Space Grant Consortium.

Citadel cadet Ryan Boodee, Daniel Showers of Clemson University and Andrew Strasburger were with the Palmetto Academy program; Cadet Daniel Pittman of The Citadel participated as part of his Research Experience for Undergraduates grant. Boodee and Pittman are physics majors. Boodee is a sophomore in Band Company, and was for much of last year The Citadel’s sole bugler; Pittman is a junior from Palmetto Battery.


Cadet Daniel Pittman prepares for his turn in the centrifuge flight simulator.

NASTAR’s Suborbital Scientist Training served two objectives.

First, it provided the students with direct experience with the launch loads the instrument and observer will endure on the way to space. Atsa is a human-tended instrument, and understanding how a human responds to the launch environment informs the sorts of decisions students will make in the design process. In particular, the NASTAR experience led to the abandonment of an electro-mechanical gimbal in favor of a purely mechanical fluid head camera mount for telescope steering. Second, a student may be called on in the future to operate Atsa during a mission. All operators will be required to complete the NASTAR training.

NASTAR’s Suborbital Scientist course consists of g-training in the centrifuge, high-altitude training in a hypobaric chamber, and distraction factors training. The overall objective is to give trainees a taste of what is going to happen on a suborbital flight. Students also undergo classroom training in high-altitude physiology, g-loading, and the commercial space industry.

Day 1 of the team’s training consisted of g-load training in the centrifuge. These centrifuge “flights” consisted of loading along the vertical (gz- pushing them down in their seats) and horizontal (gx - pushng them back in their seats) axes. Fighter pilots regularly undergo high g-loads in the z-axis: every time they execute a high-g turn. The students were trained on the anti-g straining maneuver as practiced by military pilots, and then it was off to the centrifuge for loading up to 2.5, then 4 g. The anti-g straining maneuver is done by tensing every muscle in your body, and shouting “hook!” in an effort to keep blood in your brain. At about 3 g of loading along the z-axis, most people will black out without doing the maneuver. X-axis loading has been experienced historically only by astronauts on launch. There is no maneuver to perform here: instead, one must simply sit in the seat and endure the feeling of an elephant sitting on your chest. The students were subjected to x-axis loading of first 3.5, then 6 g.

Day 2 of the training started with full simulated spaceflights. NASTAR’s Phoenix centrifuge is the most advanced in the world, allowing for the high-fidelity simulation of just about any launch profile. The team first experienced a simulated mission of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 at half of the g-loading, and then repeated the simulation at full g-loading, once again going up to 6 g in the x-axis. They then experienced a completely different profile, approximating what XCOR’s Lynx might be like.

Later in the day, the students underwent distraction factors training. They were all placed in a confined area (sitting on chairs, in a set-up similar to the interior of the SpaceShip2 cabin), and given tasks to do within first five, then two minutes. While they were attempting to complete their tasks, loud music was blaring at them, and other noise was being made in an effort to distract them.
Day 3 consisted of training for and in the hypobaric chamber. Donning flight helmets and oxygen masks, the students were taken to a simulated altitude of 24,000 feet and told to take their masks off. The objective was to experience acute hypoxia first hand. When students started to feel the effects, they put the masks back on. Later, they were shown a demonstration of Armstrong’s line, which is the altitude at which blood in a human’s body will boil if one is not wearing a pressure suit. 

Luke Sollitt is an assistant professor of physics. Prior to joining The Citadel faculty in 2009, Sollitt was a scientist at Northrup Grumman Aerospace Systems.In addition to the Atsa project, Sollitt was part of the research team that crash landed a space craft on the moon in 2009 in search of water.  

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