The Johnsville Centrifuge, at the heart of a new space-themed museum in Bucks County, gave America's earliest astronauts their wildest rides on earth.
It tossed, turned and whirled Alan Shepard (first American in space), John Glenn (first American to orbit Earth) and Neil Armstrong (first man to set foot on the moon) while simulating possible conditions during space travel.
Although the Johnsville Centrifuge and Space Museum in Warminster has lifted off, the challenges its founders face mean reaching a safe orbit will be difficult -- unless more volunteers, donors and corporate sponsors come to its aid.
Operating without any state or federal funding, it's only open 1-3:30 p.m. Sundays. Go in summer and you'll sweat because there's no air conditioning. Dress warmly in winter because there's also no heat. At this point, volunteers only have enough money to turn on the lights. Stair-climbing is necessary to go beyond the centrifuge's main floor.
But don't let the challenges turn you off. This is something you should see, and your suggested donation ($7 for adults and $5 for kids) is needed to keep the doors open.
As you take an hourlong guided tour and learn more about what used to be a top-secret research site during the hottest days of the Cold War, you'll find yourself giving thanks for the volunteers who stepped forward to save this site, as it was about to be converted into just another office building in Philadelphia's suburbs. Even now, some outbuildings, like the centrifuge's massive motor house, still are at risk of being stripped of their historic contents.
After the Soviets launched Sputnik (the world's first unmanned satellite), America had to play catch-up or risk losing that Cold War. Johnsville's centrifuge was vital, as was other research being conducted in what used to be the Naval Air Development Center.
All 31 astronauts in the Mercury, Apollo and Gemini projects took their turns riding in the centrifuge's gondola, which subjected the men to forces reaching eight times their body weights, or 8 G's. Several, including Glenn, even made it to 16 G's. At those rigorous training levels, a 200-pound-man felt and functioned as if he weighed 800 pounds at 4 G's, 1,600 pounds at 8 G's and a whopping 3,200 pounds at 16 G's.
"Picture what happens to your clothing as it completes the spin cycle in your washing machine. It'll give you an idea of how the men felt during their centrifuge rides and why their bodies were so whipped afterwards," says Mike Maguire, museum president, as he leads a tour of the museum.
In comparison, if you're sitting still to read this story, you're experiencing 1 G of gravitational pull. Ride Dorney Park's Steel Force, Hydra or Talon to feel nearly 4 G's just long enough to start screaming.
"As G-forces go even higher, your body wants to flatten out. You won't be able to lift your arms or hands. Your organs get pushed around. Your vision becomes distorted and your heart strains to keep blood pumping into the brain. As G-forces increase, blackouts and unconsciousness are common," Maguire explains.
John Glenn recalled his centrifuge rides in "John Glenn: A Memoir": "As time went on, it [the centrifuge] became a big and often dreaded part of our training." And when he talks about the special research that led him, along with Shepard and L. Gordon Cooper, to ride it to 16 G's, he says, "It's something I never want to do again."
They and others who subjected their bodies to torturous centrifuge rides were human guinea pigs for all kinds of space experiments.
The tour takes visitors outside to see another of the research site's more macabre attractions -- an ejection seat test tower. Volunteers (sometimes civilian and sometimes military) took their places, sitting above TNT charges that were lighted and sent them flying high in the tower. Notes Maguire: "One of the biggest problems was that volunteers wouldn't return for the afternoon session, after taking their first morning rides."
Inside the centrifuge building, visitors stop first in the briefing room, where scientists and astronauts talked. Then they walk onto the main floor of the centrifuge, which churned up hurricane-force winds when its 4,000 horsepower engine was turned on. They'll pass rows of dusty vacuum tubes and mazes of wires (resembling spaghetti) that powered early computers in the centrifuge control room. They'll stop in a room containing a metal tank that was the forerunner of the one used to break the G-force record and see a lineup of crumbling green foam couches used in early research on the astronauts' contour couches first developed at Johnsville.
Visitors also get to see the flight deck, where astronauts were wired so their vital signs could be monitored while swirling in the centrifuge, as well as stretchers and other first-aid equipment needed if the G-forces harmed the men. Maguire comments, "Astronaut Donald K. 'Deke' Slayton's heart problem first showed up here."
From the flight deck, near the ceiling of the centrifuge room, visitors walk out onto the boarding platform the astronauts used to reach the gondola. The highlight of it all -- looking down into the second of two gondolas in which the astronauts took their wild rides.
Unfortunately, the first of the gondolas is sitting outdoors at a Smithsonian museum warehouse site. "It's ours, if we can raise the funds needed for road permits and transportation costs to get it from Washington, D.C., to Johnsville, as well as build a structure inside the centrifuge room that will support it," Maguire says.
DAY TRIPS: JOHNSVILLE CENTRIFUGE AND SPACE MUSEUM
Hoping for orbit
Volunteers struggle to preserve Warminster's piece of space program.
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