Preparing citizens for sub-orbital science

Whether its purpose is commercial or scientific, sub-orbital flights are going to be the next big step towards bringing citizens to space, and we are closer to doing so than you might believe.

Nothing compares to zero gravity. When the unique force that pulls you back to Earth cancels out, you enter a whole new world, a weightless one. All the organs and tissues of your body struggle to understand what is happening, while you can’t but feel insatiably curious and euphoric. Now imagine yourself wearing a spacesuit in these conditions. It’s like a real sub-orbital mission leaving the Earth, but you wouldn’t want to go unprepared! While the atmospheric pressure drops and the air gets dangerously thinner inside the cabin of your ascending sub-orbital spaceship, you need to be able to breathe, move, think, communicate and work in a confined space, all at once!

Whether its purpose is commercial or scientific like us at Project PoSSUM, sub-orbital flights are going to be the next big step towards bringing citizens to space, and we are closer to doing so than you might believe. In our efforts to understand the science of our upper atmosphere, the mesosphere- where no airplanes, baloons or satellites can reach, we, at project PoSSUM, train citizen-scientist astronauts to be candidates to participate in a sub-orbital flight campaign, born from a NASA grant opportunity in 2012. In this pragmatic quest to image and probe elusive noctilucent clouds between 80 and 90 km above our heads to understand the dynamics of our climate at these altitudes, we have to prepare for a real manned mission from A to Z. It includes learning theory, practicing field operations, but also getting familiar with the tools and the conditions of sub-orbital space: spacesuits, control panels and zero gravity.

For the third year in a row, we conducted a campaign aiming at testing a new generation of IVA spacesuits while evaluating a test-subject’s vitals and abilities to operate a control panel in zero gravity and vizor-down. Ted Southern, CEO at Final Frontier Design, has been developing spacesuits made especially for this kind of mission and was eager to evaluate them for the first time ever, vizor-down. Derek ‘Duff’ Gowanlock is a research flight test engineer and Falcon twenty operation director at the National Research Council based at Ottawa MacDonald-Cartier airport, and hosted again the campaign for about a week at the beginning of October 2017. A total of twelve PoSSUM astronaut candidates and graduates plus a few other PoSSUM staff members were participating in this major enterprise.

The daily teams were composed of a test subject (wearing the spacesuit), a test director (in charge of supervising the operations from take-off till landing), a test safety officer, a suit assistant (aiding the test-subject), an equipment specialist and a flight safety officer (responsible for general safety on board). We conducted a total of three evaluations in zero-G, each constituted of a series of parabolas (ascension 2G-0G, climax at 0 G, descent 0G-2G) during which the test subject wore the fully pressurized vizor-down spacesuit and operated a ‘busy board’, a miniature replica of the control panel system that would be integrated aboard a real sub-orbital noctilucent cloud research flight. Meanwhile the test subject’s vitals and other parameters were monitored to assess the capabilities of both the astronaut and the suit. Other than being extremely fun and very rewarding for all the PoSSUM crew members, their Ottawa campaign was very successful and will enable all three parties to analyze valuable data. These data are unbelievably crucial to improve the operability and safety of future sub-orbital missions. They pave the way for near-space exploration and bring citizens a lot closer to being able to achieve what only few people have done.


From a personal perspective, working with such amazing people, whether it is astronaut candidates, the space industry or aero-spacial research, is rewarding on all levels. I am able to work on my cinematography skills in a totally different environment. I wanted to direct the film in a certain way though. I really wanted to emphasize the challenging nature of zero-gravity. Sending people in space is not as easy as it seems and it sure demands a lot of preparation. However throughout the whole process, it really felt like it's just at our fingertips, waiting to be reached. That's what should encourage us to continue working towards it, because the rewards will be great. Of that I am sure!

Project PoSSUM:

Final Frontier Design:

National Research Council: