It was a brisk evening. Clouds were parting after a day of light mist and the Italian Alps behind us were lighting up with the setting sun. The cup of espresso on the table warmed the body, but it was the discussion to come that would stimulate the mind. We were waiting for Dr. Carlo Viberti, President of the Italian company SpaceLand, and his son Kim Marco to meet us in a little cafe across from the Torino Polytechnic University. It was this very school where Dr. Viberti graduated with honors and where his son currently attends. As we’ve traveled the globe nearly every country has shown some form of involvement in space exploration. Or at least a strong desire to partake in such a bold form of exploration. Italy is no exception. They built the large cargo modules that transported supplies to the International Space Station with the space shuttle. So how is the company SpaceLand adding to Italy’s exploration of the next frontier? Dr. Viberti shed some light on that in a little café in Torino, Italy.
With a big grin Dr. Viberti divulged his goal, “I want to see space open to everyone.” But space, and especially living and working in space, is tricky business. The environment is wildly different and even with all the needed life support equipment, one thing will always be missing – gravity. Well, technically it’s there but our bodies become less aware of its presence as we fall freely around the Earth in an orbit around the planet. Someday, hopefully soon, humans will also experience long periods of minimal gravity as they travel from Earth to other heavenly bodies like Mars. Dr. Viberti wants people and hardware to be prepared by developing and testing all possible experiments and operational scenarios in reduced gravity conditions. It is through SpaceLand that he hopes to enhance scientific research, innovation in technology and education, and intelligent tourism or ‘edutainment’. As part of the growing “New Space” economy, SpaceLand hopes to add to the socio-economic benefit and generation of new jobs and wealth that accompanies pushing the frontier of space.SpaceLand is focused on making reduced gravity experiences more easily available to anybody. You don’t need a rocket to experience what microgravity is like. All you need is a neutrally buoyant environment or a state of free-fall. Since 2002, SpaceLand offers both underwater training and microgravity flight opportunities. The latter of which is accomplished by flying a plane through a series of hyperbolic arcs. To perform these arcs, the pilot pulls the airplane up in a steep climb and then nose-dives the aircraft to create about 20-40 seconds of ‘weightlessness’. SpaceLand’s training and qualification protocols have enabled more than 96% of its microgravity flight participants to enjoy a perfect experience and conduct flawless experimental research. Jayleen and I have experienced the wonders of microgravity several times aboard NASA’s “Weightless Wonder” aircraft. In fact, it’s how we met.
Both Dr. Viberti and his son are no strangers to the microgravity experience either. Dr. Viberti completed a series of flights in the 1990’s to support NASA and the European Space Agency in astronaut-systems research and qualification test campaigns for development of the International Space Station. Years later, Dr. Viberti and his son flew parabolas together to research the effects of microgravity on the nerve growth factor (NGF), a measure of the body’s hormonal response to changing conditions such as gravitational stress. Impressively, this research was done supporting a Noble-Prize winner and led to Dr. Viberti being named the first nominee for the position of astronaut-engineer aboard future Virgin Galactic sub-orbital research flights. This experience also put Kim Marco’s name in the record books as the world’s youngest microgravity participant for research purposes. He was 11 years old at the time and now is a freshman at Torino Polytechnical University studying mechanical engineering. His flight experience and the ability to freely flip through space likely influencing his current sport hobby as a practitioner of parkour, when he’s not practicing extreme off-piste snowboarding with his father.SpaceLand is at the forefront of microgravity research in Europe. In addition to flying the youngest participant on a microgravity research flight, they also flew the oldest – at 93 years of age. And even more impressive is having flown the first disabled individual; a completely disabled woman who requested to serve SpaceLand as a test subject for innovative human-machine interface qualification tests in a weightless environment. This experience paved the way for theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking to take the same flight in 2007. While SpaceLand’s flights are currently chartered, the company is considering its own Airbus A330 or Boeing 767 to make flights more easily accessible to the European community. And if that happens, Dr. Viberti also hopes to develop a Mars-gravity flying laboratory onboard where researchers can conduct experiments under simulated Martian gravity in synergy with international space agencies and aerospace industries. The breadth and range of fliers through SpaceLand will also help in our understanding of how humans work and adapt to varying gravitational fields. While each parabola lasts only 20-40 seconds, depending on the extent of the gravity reduction and the user requirements, some hormonal changes can still be observed with distinct differences across age groups. For example, Kim Marco’s flight showed that an 11-year old demonstrates nearly 8 times higher nerve growth factor (NGF) levels during flight than the rest of the adult population. This hints at a much faster adaptation to the changing environment than others and provides precious insight benefiting basic research on neurodegenerative pathologies, such as Alzheimer’s. As SpaceLand increases the accessibility to microgravity opportunities, a larger amount of data can be gathered across a very diverse population on a myriad of biomedical disciplines and pharmaceutical research areas. But SpaceLand’s focus is not only on parabolic flight. Perhaps one of the most accessible ways to experience what it’s like to work in a microgravity or partial gravity environment can be found in the water. On the island of Mauritius, SpaceLand has established a spin-off company showing people what working in space is like through an astronaut underwater training experience. While still under Earth’s gravitational field, diving enables both the diver and any objects trimmed for neutral buoyancy to simulate working in space. And if you need any convincing, astronauts have often commented on how their underwater training has significantly prepared them for performing spacewalk tasks outside the International Space Station. SpaceLand is making a similar training experience accessible amid the tropical beauty of Mauritius. Over the coming years, SpaceLand hopes to pioneer the creation of a special dive certification that indicates one’s proficiency in working in simulated microgravity environments.
As the espresso cup drained and dusk set in over Torino, our conversation turned to the future. SpaceLand has its eyes set on all aspects of preparing explorers and researchers for space. From underwater training to parabolic flights to one day working with other aerospace companies on detailed suborbital research campaigns – SpaceLand aims to be at the forefront. “I want us to raise awareness on microgravity research,” Dr. Viberti shared, “We need to enable as many people as possible to get a feeling of what space is about and [to understand] the importance of preparing for a second home on a near celestial body such as the Moon and Mars. Soon, the Earth could no longer be sufficient [to support] mankind.” And if our journey has shown us anything, it is that the more opportunities one is exposed to, the greater their capability to innovate. As SpaceLand makes the exciting and unique opportunity of microgravity increasingly available, there’s no doubt Italy will be at the forefront of innovating space.Footnote: Since our visit with SpaceLand, several entrepreneurs and international venture capital investors have entered the SpaceLand business plan to assist in the creation of a Center of Excellence for Microgravity and Mars-gravity. This SpaceLand run center will be developed in Italy by the end of next year with the support of successful theme-park owners and managers. The center hopes to welcome more than half a million visitors and users per year. The facility will be modeled to look like a series of spacecraft that have just landed on Mars and will aim to bring scientific research, technology innovation, planetary exploration support, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, and space tourism together in one centralized location. SpaceLand is charging ahead in creating an unprecedented destination in Italy with a strong focus on “Space Economy and Knowledge.”