Wright-Patterson Air Force Base further cemented its status as a hub for aerospace innovation for the U.S. Air Force and beyond this week through a partnership with NASA.
Nine NASA astronauts and one Boeing astronaut are visiting Wright-Patt on Thursday and today for medical evaluations and fittings. They became the first people to use the new centrifuge for training in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, according to the base.
The centrifuge — which cost $34.4 million and was dedicated in August after five years of delays — is the world’s most advanced of its kind. It is the latest project on base to boost Wright-Patt’s status as a center of aerospace advancement.
It’s projects like the centrifuge that could expand a partnership with NASA and other agencies in the future, said Gen. Mark Koeniger, commander of the 711th Human Performance Wing.
“We are hoping that when NASA finishes up with this training that they can go back and say, ‘Wow, the Human Performance Wing was able to provide a realistic training environment for this,’” Koeniger said. “(Then) we would anticipate that in the future NASA would come back … I think we have more flexibility now.”
The program, along with the agency’s commercial partners, plans to launch astronauts to low-Earth orbit aboard Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. They will re-establish America’s launch capability for astronauts to reach the International Space Station, according to NASA.
This will be the first time since the Apollo program that centrifuge training has been required for astronauts launching on a U.S. spacecraft. Astronauts will again use capsule aircraft to return to Earth instead of “winged space shuttles,” according to Wright-Patt.
With an egg-shaped capsule on the end of a 31-foot long spinning arm, the giant centrifuge pushes Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps pilots to learn how to endure gravity forces up to nine times a human’s body weight. It has the capacity to go from zero to 15 times the force of gravity in one second and can make 45 rotations per minute.
The pressure from the centrifuge makes it feel like there is a “small elephant” sitting on an astronaut’s chest, said NASA astronaut Eric Boe, who is also a retired Air Force colonel.
“(Wright-Patt) is a unique place and does a lot of good things,” Boe said “Now we have this brand new centrifuge that’s making a big difference. So, Wright-Patt does a lot of great things not only for the Air Force but the military and also for NASA.”
The centrifuge joins other upcoming projects at Wright-Patt, including an expansion of The National Air and Space Intelligence Center.
NASIC has become more important in recent years, and its upcoming expansion will mark one of the largest projects in the base’s history, officials said. NASIC will get $182 million for its expansion, including an appropriation of $61 million so construction can begin in fiscal year 2019, according to the National Defense Authorization Act.
The intelligence agency — which grew by about 1,500 employees from 2000 to 2015 — analyzes air, space, and cyber threats, such as ballistic missile capabilities, and provides findings to the nation’s political and military leaders. NASIC’s expanded building will bring employees from six different locations into one facility and will add 900 seats to house intelligence analysts and engineers and add labs.
The centrifuge, four new research altitude chambers and a recently commissioned Navy disorientation research device — all within walking distance — are part of a $92 million array of projects authorities say will designate Wright-Patterson as the hub for research in aerospace physiology.
All three projects were built at Wright-Patt to consolidate aeromedical research for the Air Force and Navy in one place. The consolidation followed the 2005 base closure process, which moved operations to the Ohio base from San Antonio, Texas and Pensacola, Florida.
All three projects give the School of Aerospace Medicine and Air Force Research Laboratory — both located at Wright-Patt — a big advantage and add to the idea that the base is the nervous system of the Air Force, Koeniger said.
“Now you have one organization that has a very broad expertise from life sciences to physical science to medicine and to the gamut of engineering,” Koeniger said. “You have all of those personnel under one roof … and that organization is located within the Air Force Research Lab. That makes that a very powerful synergy to be had in having all of that located here.”
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