Does age have any impact on the ability of men and women in their Third Age to experience suborbital spaceflight? In any previous decade, that question might be viewed as astounding, or at least a moot point. However, in this decade of the 21st century, that question will be answered.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are approaching the day when they will begin to fly spaceflight participants into suborbital space. The thrust from the Virgin Galactic spacecraft and the Blue Origin rocket will impose G-forces on the passengers’ bodies they have never felt before. As the spacecraft breeches the 100 km theoretical boundary line of space, those men and women will suddenly experience weightlessness.

The weightlessness experienced by the passengers in the VG Unity spacecraft or the Blue Origin capsule is the result of the spacecraft’s fall to Earth.

Will Third Age men and women be physically able to experience suborbital spaceflight? In 2011, the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center in Southampton, Pennsylvania conducted a series of tests by physicians from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB).

The human centrifuge in NASTAR’s Pennsylvania facility passenger gondola features an ergonomic seat facing an audio-video system designed to simulate the flight profile and enhance the experience for better physiological response.

Among the 77 participants for these tests, 16 had a history of hypertension (high blood pressure) with seven of them taking medication to control it, five had diabetes, five had undergone coronary bypass surgery or stenting, and 17 had hyperlipidemia.  Of those few participants requiring additional medical testing prior to the centrifuge runs, none were disqualified from participating. The results of these tests were published, and the findings encouraging.

“This cohort of potential suborbital commercial SFPs (suborbital spaceflight participants) successfully completed centrifuge training with little difficulty,” a research article authored by the UTMB team stated, adding, “There were no significant cardiac, cerebrovascular or respiratory events noted despite a wide variation in ages and underlying health conditions.”

A few of the participants were in their sixties and seventies, and they came through the centrifuge tests with flying colors.

John Glenn – An Unfair Comparison?

On February 20, 1962, Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn was launch by an Atlas rocket into orbit around the Earth. After several orbits of the Earth, his capsule reentered the atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. This was a pivotal mission in NASA’s eventual plan to take astronauts to the Moon and back.

Unlike several of the other Mercury astronauts who later participated in the Gemini and Apollo manned space programs, Glenn chose to leave NASA and later pursue a political career. As a decorated war veteran, astronaut and national hero, political life suited Glenn very well. While still a Senator, NASA Administrator Dan Golden announced that Glenn would fly on a future space shuttle mission. There are conflicting versions of how Glenn succeeded in bringing this about, but he was not the only U.S. politician to do so. Rep. Bill Nelson had flown on STS-61 as a payload specialist in 1986.

Sen. Glenn trained for and was assigned to STS-95. This shuttle mission was launched in November 1998. At the time of his flight, Sen. Glenn was 77 years old—the oldest person to fly into space. The pretext for Glenn’s mission assignment to was study his biometrics and the effects of spaceflight on a man of his age.

There was much more ink printed regarding the former Mercury astronaut returning to orbital spaceflight after nearly 35 years, than the supposed biomedical results from his time in space during 1998. Glenn enjoyed the pre-flight training and rubbing shoulders with shuttle astronauts. He was in good physical health at the time of the mission, and he experienced no physical reactions to launch or extended weightlessness during orbit.

If nothing else, this provides a positive case for men and women in The Third Age of their lives can safely experience suborbital spaceflight.

Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC
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