From Commercial Pilot to Space Pilot: Is Your Body Ready?

Published: 12-17-2018
Are pilots physically ready to go to space? Here's how to prepare.

Sunrise over Earth

Virgin Galactic has announced plans to start offering flights that fly 50 miles above Earth’s atmosphere. Although cabin space within the super pressurized aircraft can only accommodate 6 people, commercial pilots are going to be needed. With Virgin Galactic hiring pilots for space travel and other companies looking into the futuristic industry, you may be wondering what it takes to elevate your career to these galactic altitudes.

And if you thought the aviation medical exam was tough, wait until you prepare for space. Let’s go over what you’d expect from the new frontier of travel.

Within the Atmosphere

Flying at an altitude of 36,000 and 40,000 feet above ground has its perks. Engine output speed is steady, less fuel is burned than at lower altitudes, and there is way less traffic up there. Try to fly above this altitude and expect trouble.

Drastically thinner air above the sweet spot means a substantial difference in cabin pressure and engine requirements. In regards to soaring 50 miles above Earth, an aircraft engine would have to go at least three times the speed of sound, aka Mach 3, to achieve such great heights.

If you thought the aviation medical exam was tough, wait until you prepare for space.

Preparing for Mach Speed

To put that into perspective, let’s compare to current commercial airline speeds. The Boeing 747-8i, 747-400, 787, 777, and the Airbus A380 can go Mach 0.85 if conditions are right. Having said that, even private jets barely get close to Mach 1. So how can pilots prepare for flying at Mach speeds if no aircraft is up to the challenge?

Practice withstanding G-LOC, or Gravity Induced Loss of Consciousness. G, or gravities normal force on the body, is amplified when going at Mach speeds. Which means when you experience anything stronger than 1-G for the first time, odds are you may grey-out, black-out, or lose consciousness altogether. And that is if most of your blood is pooled at your feet. If the opposite occurs, the majority of your blood is in your head, anticipate headaches, a flushed face, and congestion.

As a pilot, you may have already experienced a higher G-Force than most since an increase in gravity typically occurs during takeoff and landing. To increase this exposure on a more frequent basis, consider adding the anti-g straining maneuver (AGSM) to your work-out regime.

AGSM involves regulated breathing and tightening of specific muscles to manually direct blood flow. If done consistently, the practice should make it easier for you to stay conscious when flying at Mach speeds. And of course, avoid using narcotics, alcohol, and cigarettes since these can reduce your ability to adapt in a timely manner up there.

Commercial Flights to Space

As of 2010, there were 6 companies officially looking into space, either for commercial or cargo use. Of those companies, Virgin Galactic appears to be the only airline paving the way to outer space. Nevertheless, pilots interested in exploring the final frontier, or at least getting really close to it, may soon have the option to do so.


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