17. Simulating spaceflight – G-forces & zero gravity

weightlessness – gagarin trainingThere is more humour in this scene set in the cosmonaut training facility in Moscow, and based on the real-life testimony of witnesses. The woman with the notepad represents Soviet journalist Lydia Obukhova, who was assigned to cover the story of the USSR’s preparations for space. Yuri’s tendency to liven up the tedium of training with jokes, was well-remembered by his colleagues.weightlessness simulation and G-force training

Both the Russian and American approaches to training for spaceflight were necessarily quite similar. Scientists, medics and engineers in both camps were tasked with doing the impossible: simulating spaceflight conditions on Earth. To do this, they broke the problem down into its components: The isolation and fatigue of operating for long periods inside a pressurised spacecraft, was simulated using a compression chamber. High g-forces were created by whirling the trainees round in the centrifuge. Zero-gravity itself was the biggest problem. The American solution of repeated diving a large aircraft from high altitude proved to be the best, allowing several minutes of zero gravity in which simple spaceflight tasks could be practiced, and the responses of the body monitored. The Soviet solution however, was much more exciting, both for the participants and as an image on the page!

It may not seem like an important problem now, but at the time, nobody was really sure if the human body and mind could even function without gravity. In particular, doctors were concerned that it might affect the mind. Experienced pilots were less concerned, but it is revealing that one of the first reports Yuri will make from space, is that he feels fine and that zero gravity is not troubling him. Similarly it is the first thing his fellow cosmonauts rush to ask him about when he lands.

I found no pictures of the Cosmonaut training facility, so I worked on the assumption that the compression/isolation chamber would look like a deep sea divers’ decompression tank. The communications equipment was based on memories of 1950’s lab gear, seen in UK military surplus stores.

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