Space Travel: A beginner's guide to becoming an astronaut

It's a phrase we never really imagined ourselves writing, but these days you are spoilt for choice when it comes to travelling into space. Virgin Galactic is doing its thing, Lynx Space Academy has got involved and even the International Space Station is taking guests. So, just how easy is it to go into space? 

As it turns out, there's a lot more to it than a high price tag and if you thought it was as easy as paying your fee and stepping on board as if were a commercial flight, then think again. This is space we're talking about and there are more hoops to jump through than you might think. We should know, we went along to try to jump through a few ourselves.

Go for a spin

Our journey starts in Farnborough at QinetiQ's centrifuge. For those not familiar with a centrifuge, it's a system where an arm is spun around in a circle by rotating about a central, fixed origin. They're normally used in the lab to separate different parts of a liquid suspension. For space training, they've created centrifuge chambers on a giant level. It's people that get spun around, and the separation in question is your blood cells from the body tissues that need them. Pilots sit in the centrifuge machines in their flight suits and the idea is to simulate the effects of increases to gravitational force on the body.

Very few people in the world will ever get to sit in a centrifuge and experience the bowel loosening intensities of high g-forces. Pocket-lint, as part of the Dead Space 3 launch campaign, was lucky enough to hop into one and test it out.

It's difficult to describe exactly what 3.2g feels like, but try to imagine yourself weighing three times your current body weight while simultaneously passing out and you should get the idea. So, think of every body movement you try to make as becoming three times harder than normal. In a word, it's terrifying. We would never do it again.

Making sure people's brains don't turn to soup is Dr Henry Lupa, QinetiQ's principle medical officer. Lupa is also an independent medical officer on the Virgin Galactic project. The medical we underwent before venturing into the centrifuge with Lupa, who sits in the centre of the machine, was extremely thorough.

Spinning your body round at that kind of speed can have all sorts of effects on your muscles, let alone draining your brain of blood. But it's a passage that Lupa believes most will have to go through before they get on a Virgin Galactic flight.

You see, when Virgin Galactic's rockets fire, passengers will be catapulted up to a possible peak of 4g, more than we were comfortable experiencing in the centrifuge.

Naturally, Virgin doesn't want to close the experience off from those who might be older or less physically fit and, admittedly, the type of g-force your body is subject to will be in a different direction, but still Virgin is running tests to see if potential customers will be okay in a centrifuge. At the moment, test subjects aged from 22 to 88 have managed a pass rate of 93 per cent. Clearly most are more resistant to the effects of increased g-force than we are. 

Getting fit

Fitness in space is important for obvious reasons. The main one is that you don't have direct access to medical assistance. You are, after all, in space and there's never that many people up there at any one time. Going up into the outer atmosphere isn't going to be a particularly good idea if you weigh 20 stone and have a pacemaker fitted.

To put things in perspective, the average NASA astronaut has to pass two tests. The first is a vision exam, which checks if your eyesight is at least correctable to 20/20. Next is blood pressure, which can't go beyond 140/90. Finally comes height - you musn't be taller than 6ft 2. 

The real test comes with the fitness exam. NASA expects potential civilian astronauts to swim continuously for  three lengths of a 25 metre pool in both a bathing suit and in a jumpsuit with shoes on. You then need to tread water for 10 minutes without stopping. Follow that with two years of physical and mental training and then you're go for launch. 

So for young and healthy people these don't seem hugely challenging, but not everyone who is applying for Virgin Galactic is either young or healthy.

Getting rich

Now to the final part of getting on a commercial space flight - the cost. At the moment, Virgin Galactic will cost around $200,000. That's a lot of money for about 2.5 hours in space. Dr Lupa does assure us that things will get cheaper as the technology is refined but, to the average Joe, that kind of cash means space flight is still a long way off.

Another option is to go up to the International Space Station. Guy Laliberté, of Cirque Du Soleil fame, spent 10 days in space on a Soyuz mission to promote awareness of water issues facing mankind. The trip saw Laliberté go through training at the QinetiQ centrifuge in a similar manner to Pocket-lint. It cost an estimated $30 million.

So most of us are priced out . But there's one final option, in the form of the Lynx Space Academy competition. Should you win, the competition will eventually put you briefly into space. The flight will take you 103km up and follow a parabolic flight path, which recreates the feel of weightlessness. 

In reality, commercial space flight for the masses is still a long way off. Whatever happens, we hope a method is perfected that means no one has to experience the gut-wrenching feel of a centrifuge. Our eyes have only just popped back into our sockets.

Dead Space 3 launches on 8 February in Europe and 5 February in the US.