How This 'Founder Astronaut' Is Prepping for Space Travel

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Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides has had her share of adventures. She's floated in Zero G hundreds of times; traveled to the bottom of the ocean with Titanic director James Cameron; expanded her Yuri's Night world space parties to seven continents; and will be onboard a Virgin Galactic space plane when it takes to the skies at Mach 3.

Until then, Whitesides will spend her summer in Ireland as a visiting lecturer at the International Space University, where she'll train graduate students as part of the organization's Space Studies Program. We caught up with the LA-based Whitesides before her journey across the pond.

You did 85 weightless flights while a member of the crew at the Zero Gravity Corporation. Can you describe what that's like?
It's amazing. What I love about it, as a physics geek, is your basic understanding of the world no longer applies. Things—water, pens, hair—float around [and] you become hyper-aware. What you're seeing doesn't follow the rules anymore; it's like being a little kid again.

What inspired you to study astrobiology [undergrad at Stanford and Masters at Caltech] in the first place?
I was always interested in space exploration as the next step in human evolution, and I knew that astrobiologists would be needed in space; whereas other scientists and engineers were ground-based. I wanted to work on bioregenerative life support systems that grew our food and recycled our air and water.

how-this--and-39;founder-astronaut-and-39;-is-prepping-for-space-travel photo 2My initial passion, however, was physics. I had a great physics teacher when I was at high school, who inspired me, and made physics magical and beautiful, climbing up on the physics bench, reading us a reflection from the mystic Thomas Merton before we started the day's lessons. So cool. I wanted to find the Grand Unified Theory.

But then, as I got older, there was more calculus and less Merton, the romance had gone. Initially at Stanford, I studied a wide range of things, including Earth systems and international relations, because I wanted to use space to bring the world together. But then I interned on [Capitol] Hill in Washington D.C., on the space subcommittee of the House, and the advice I got there was to get a technical degree. So I returned to Stanford, and got a degree in biology, and eventually went on to Caltech and got my Masters.

Was there a Sheldon Cooper in your crew at Caltech?
(Laughs) I felt like I lived in an enchanted bubble in the biology department and in the sub-basement of the Geological and Planetary Sciences building, a world away from the experimental physicists. So no, my Caltech years weren't The Big Bang Theory. I had an awesome crew who were as good with people as they were with research.

What are you most proud of concerning Yuri's Night, the World Space Party you co-founded in 2001?
That we put the magic and romance back into spaceflight. I came of age in the 90s, and was worried because it felt like space had gone out of fashion. There was pressure to make it strictly business, just about the scientific return, and I was crushed. So we started Yuri's Night [named after Yuri Gagarin, the first person to travel to outer space] to return the humanity into space exploration. It's grown to 234 events, in 56 countries, on seven continents.

As a lecturer, training future astronauts at the International Space University, how do you inspire the next generation of space leaders? Is it true you like to quote Yoda?
As Yoda says: 'Anger, Fear, Aggression, the Dark Side of the Force are they.' So, in order to be extraordinary, you have to face everything and walk through it; burying it doesn't work, it will resurface. This is why I wrote my book, The New Right Stuff, I strive to become a better person every day and to help all of us become the people we want to be.

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It's really the sacredness of the Jedi which appeals most to me. The Force is a way for secular societies, particularly in our tech community, to be able to talk about the infinite in a way that isn't divisive, as we work towards a future where any of us would be proud to send our species to the nearest star system.

Finally, you're a Founder Astronaut and will be on one of Virgin Galactic's first suborbital flights. How are you preparing for that trip: both physically and philosophically?
There are 3Gs on boost while the rocket is firing, which feels like having three people on top of you, for about 10 seconds. It's not too bad; like a carnival ride. But, on the way back, for re-entry, there'll be a transient 6Gs coming back through the atmosphere. We'll take that lying down—the seats move in the spacecraft—so you take the force in the chest at that point because you don't want the G-forces pulling the blood down out of your head. I've done the centrifuge training—6G is not fun—but you can handle it, especially when it's for less than a second.

I'm profoundly excited for the experience and have been preparing for years. But at the same time, you can't ever really be prepared to see the Earth from space for the first time. I can't wait.

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