Why Would-Be Astronauts Learn Aerobatics
Space is a very unforgiving environment, and it's critical to use the correct procedures when emergencies occur. That's a big part of why aerobatic flight is so important.
One of the top questions I get about commercial astronaut training is what part of the training is the most fun. My answer is that getting to work in zero gravity is easily the best part of the experience, but aerobatic flight is a close second. Yes, aerobatic flight is part of the training process.
When I first became involved in the commercial space program, I started out with a different organization than the one that I am actively involved in now. At the time, that particular organization had a list of training exercises that its members needed to complete in order to be considered for a spot on an eventual space mission. Aerobatic flight training was near the top of the list. Even the program I am in today requires aerobatic flight as part of the initial qualification process.
There are at least three different reasons why aerobatic flight is such an important part of the training process. The first is that aerobatics subject you to many of the same forces that you would experience during a space launch. Aerobatics teach you how to deal with the crushing g-forces and how to avoid blacking out. It also teaches you to deal with discomfort. After all, you can't stop flying the airplane just because you feel like you are about to vomit.
A second reason why aerobatics are such a big deal is that piloting an aerobatic aircraft gets you used to operating a complex machine. Granted, none of the aircraft used for aerobatics are anywhere near as complex as a spacecraft, but that's OK. Flying an aerobatic aircraft forces you to focus on procedures and to think ahead about what you need to be doing next. Those seemingly simple thought patterns are absolutely essential when it comes to spaceflight.
A third reason why aerobatics are an important requirement for would-be astronauts is that flying aerobatics teaches you how to cope with an adverse situation without panicking. I remember one situation in which I got a little bit sloppy with one of the maneuvers that I was flying, and it caused me to go into a spin. For those who aren't familiar with spins, just picture a piece of dirt swirling around the whirlpool caused by a bathtub drain. The airplane is no longer flying at that point. It is rapidly spiraling nose-first toward the ground.
At any rate, I wasn't watching my airspeed closely enough coming out of a maneuver and found myself in a relatively violent spin, rapidly falling toward the Pacific Ocean. I had been in spins before, but this one was more intense than the others. The important takeaway (from an astronaut training prospective) is that I was in a situation that I could not easily detach myself from. I was forced to deal with the spin, while also putting aside the physiological effects such as nausea.
At that point, I had two options. One was to eject myself from the aircraft and parachute into the ocean. While that was an actual option, it was a bad one. Not only would it have resulted in the loss of the aircraft, I could easily have drowned.
The other option was to recover from the spin. Recovering from a spin is surprisingly easy to do. In fact it's something that most student pilots learn how to do, even if they aren't planning on doing aerobatics. However, even though spin recovery is easy, the process is anything but intuitive.
The natural tendency is to use the stick to counter the spin. However, that can actually make the spin worse. The proper way to deal with a spin is to idle the engines, put the stick in a neutral position, apply full rudder in the direction opposite the spin and use forward elevator to put the plane into a normal dive. Once you have built up enough airspeed, you can simply pull back on the stick to recover. It's really simple to do, but the trick is be able to remember the steps while you are in a downward spiral.
I mentioned earlier that aerobatic flight forces you to think about procedures. Recovering from the spin that I just discussed meant putting aside the anxiety associated with rapidly spiraling toward the ground. It also forced me to press through the physical discomfort and nausea and focus on the proper procedure for spin recovery.
Believe it or not, this is the very essence of what it is like to train to go to space. As someone who has spent a lot of time in the centrifuge working through simulated launches, I can tell you from first-hand experience that launches are physically demanding: You have to cope with g-forces, heavy vibration and changes in orientation that can make you dizzy or nauseous. All the while, you still have to focus on monitoring key systems to make sure that the spacecraft is doing what it is supposed to be doing. And if a problem does occur, you have to be able to solve the problem quickly and correctly (based on pre-established procedures).
Space is a very unforgiving environment, and it's critically important to use the correct procedures when emergencies occur. That's a big part of why aerobatic flight is so important. Aerobatics get you used to calmly focusing on procedures in life-or-death situations, just as is sometimes required during a space mission.
Brien Posey is a 19-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.