LAFAYETTE -- If Tesla Motor chief Elon Musk ever gets in his Hyperloop and rockets horizontally from San Francisco to Los Angeles, he'll have to hustle to catch up with Lafayette resident Mary Jo Marggraff. She's already traveling at 6G.
The 50-some-year-old pilot and mission support rep for Virgin Galactic spent part of her summer swathed in a flight suit, hurtling at speeds that made her feel like a VW Bug had landed on her chest. Cameras were catching it all.
"They're simulating extreme human conditions in accelerated flight," Marggraff said about the heavy simulator flight training course she completed this summer at the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center in Southampton, Pa. As the nation's first nongovernment, Federal Aviation Administration-certified civilian space training center, NASTAR collaborates on projects with NASA and similar aeronautic agencies, conducts space, civil and military aviation training, researches safety practices and equipment and features summer camps and outreach programs for students and educators.
Marggraff was seeking to bolster her pilot and certified flight instructor expertise and better serve the prospective passenger astronauts she addresses in her job at the suborbital space tourist company within Richard Branson's Virgin Group. To that end, she joined eight other space cowboys for two days of instruction and simulated flight travel.
Watching a Phoenix STS400 spin at thousands of miles per hour before taking her "turn," Marggraff says there's nothing like actually being in the Phoenix.
"If you're 130 pounds, you're going to feel up to six times that amount of force. As you leave the clutch and try to punch 63 miles into space, your blood pressure, usually about 110, can't get up to your brain," she said.
The lack of oxygen grays out peripheral vision; puffing air increases pressure just enough to force the blood upward. Marggraff said some younger trainees, with lower blood pressure than she has, experienced more trouble with that. NASTAR requires that participants be in reasonably good condition and have a doctor's permission if there is a history of heart problems.
Hearing the attending medics ask, "How are you doing?" while spinning centrifugally at speeds so high she could barely lifts her arms, Marggraff was enraptured by the view.
"I could see us leaving the planet and see the gauges noting the altitude. It was remarkable -- picture North America, then the twilight, the vapor enclosure of earth, then bingo -- floating, and a canopy of stars."
She said the experience will prompt her to encourage future space travelers to get some form of simulator experience. Sneezing is 3G, but it lasts less than a second, she said. Stressing the body for longer is an entirely different ballgame. NASTAR's two-day programs aren't cheap ($3-4,000), but she is convinced that learning counter measures ahead of time will make space travel more enjoyable.
For Marggraff, who dreamed as a child of being an astronaut, a Cessna 152 that smelled like chocolate, leather and fuel was as close as she thought she'd ever come to space travel. Even that was a stretch, for a 40-year-old mother of two who'd spent her career in marketing and writing for bio tech companies and Hewlett-Packard. Even a book she wrote and published in 1996, "Simple Things You Can Do To Make a Difference," to support at-risk kids, didn't satisfy her inner engine. While "hauling her kids around like a warrior mom," she decided to stop living within the margins and signed up for flight instruction at Buchanan Field Airport in Concord.
"It was a lot of hard work," she recalled. "Only 6 percent of pilots are women.
I was a midlife mom and the other students were young guys. My family did a gentle dare to follow my heart's desire."
The whole process took just under two years, and in the end she was credentialed, instrument/commercial rated for precision landing and air maneuvers. Bold, chastising comments about risk-taking no longer bothered her; managing risk while living a life according to passion was her new manifesto.
Made brave by technical skills and the thrill of launching herself into "lazy eights," high over the Delta, she sought out the space fight exploration company she says will likely be the first to send civilians into space.
"They are repeating successful safety tests -- flown by expert pilots, many from the military -- and it could be within the next six months we send six passengers and two pilots up in a spaceship," she said. "But it all rides on safety at Virgin."
XCOR, a competitor based in the Mojave Desert, is also preparing to launch space travel. A 2 1/2-hour, 63-miles-up excursion will run $250,000 at Virgin Galactic and $95,000 for XCOR's trip. Marggraff said the higher cost at VG is due to the larger ship and second pilot: XCOR's slimmer operation will have a 1:1 ratio. Which leads to the real reason she is jazzed about spreading the word of VG's impending group expeditions.
"I want to travel with other people and share the experience," she said. "Yes, it's astounding to take a machine and make it airborne, but to bring it back down safely is communication and community. There'll be those who go for the view and those for the research. I'll go because the earth is fragile and seen from the scale of the universe, it's stewardship is profoundly important."