Being a test subject for NASA
Easily recognized around the Lake Country with his trademark handlebar mustache, not many people realize that when he was fresh out of college, Billy Webster earned a two-year stunt in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Research Program, where he underwent trials for the perils of outer space and trained alongside Astronaut Jim Lovell.
A decade before American Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historical two-hour walk on the moon in 1969, NASA implemented preparations for human spaceflight with its programs called “Project Mercury” (1958-1963), “Project Gemini” (1961-1966), and “Project Apollo” (1969-1972).
In 1962, Webster had just earned a degree in chemistry from the University of Alabama. As a member of the University’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force and assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Eager to use his newly gained knowledge, Webster said he dove wholeheartedly into his assigned task of finding a chemical or method to extinguish fires on aircraft made of magnesium.
“One day in mid-1963, a little note came across my desk that said ‘If you want the adventure of a lifetime, report to the flight line for duty,’” he recalled, explaining that many of the officers at Wright-Patterson received the same note. “So I said, ‘why not?’ and went to the flight line.” The volunteers were all boarded on a KC-135, which Webster described was “like a big cargo aircraft.”
“They took us up and flew around about two hours doing Zero-G maneuvers. Two weeks later, they invited me to come back. I thought it was because I had done everything correct; but as it turns out, they invited me back because I didn’t get sick,” he said with amusement. “The nickname of it was ‘vomit comet’ because … almost every person got sick.”
G-force is the common term for gravitational force equivalent, which is a measurement of acceleration produced by mechanical force. Most humans black out at levels of 9-Gs, according to the National Space Centre website. Astronauts normally experience a maximum force of 3-Gs during a rocket launch, equivalent to three times the force of gravity humans experience on Earth.
With the pilots taking the KC-135 into steep climbs and dives, the “Weightless Wonder” jet (the “vomit comet”) took the Air Force volunteers interchangeably from 2.5-Gs to Zero-Gs repeatedly for two hours, Webster said. “Only four or five people did not get sick and I was one of them,” he noted. “And when anyone got sick, they didn’t stop the flight. They would say ‘sorry, but you’ve still got to stay on here for two hours,’ and then strapped them to the wall and gave them a bag. That had to be miserable.”
For a little over two years, Webster was a member of the program as a test subject and a safety officer. “We tested everything from how to do maintenance on the outside of a spacecraft to how to eat,” he said. “Because there’s no gravity, the food floated off, so at that time, the food was placed in tubes kind of like toothpaste and we took the cap off and squeezed it into our mouth.” His face cringed as he added, “It wasn’t good at all.”
As a safety officer, Webster ensured the test subjects were kept safe. “When the aircraft stops nose diving, you can get hurt if not on the floor so the safety officer would pull you to the floor,” he explained.
When astronauts went into space, they were under G-forces one brief time and then they became weightless in outer space and nothing changed, Webster said. “But we did it interchangeably in one-minute intervals repeatedly for three hours,” he said. “I was so exhausted after three hours that I felt like I was going to pass out because of all the exertion it took.”
At some point in the testing phase, an author for the Life Science book, Man and Space, interviewed all the test subjects and photographed them on their test missions. Webster is pictured twice in the book.
As NASA began preparing the Gemini and Apollo projects for two- and three-man spacecraft, astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell were slated for the Gemini 7 project. The training missions were on a strict schedule and if Borman or Lovell couldn’t attend, someone was assigned to take their place. The astronaut suits were made specifically to physically fit each astronaut, so all the test subjects were measured to see who would be the two astronauts’ alternates during the training missions.
“I fit in Frank Borman’s spacesuit, so if Frank was not available, I would stand in and do his job on the mission,” Webster said. “I never met him because if he was there, I wasn’t needed. But, I did meet Jim Lovell and sat in the seat beside him during the missions because I was taking Frank’s place.”
Everything the astronauts would be doing on the Gemini flights in space was practiced during the training missions, but in two-minute intervals duplicated multiple times. “We had to wear all of the spacesuit,” Webster said. “So, I wore Frank’s spacesuit and sat in his place on the training missions and I did everything Frank did.” Webster emphasized that he was not an astronaut alternate for going into space because astronauts must be pilots who have met strict requirements; instead, he was just an alternate for the training missions.
Due to his experiences with the space-training missions, the Air Force sent Webster to the University of New Hampshire in 1965 to obtain an engineering degree. After obtaining that degree, he returned to the Ohio air force base and worked on C-5 aircraft. He retired as a Major after 20 years of service.
“I had the best assignments anyone could ask for,” he said of his time in the Air Force. “In 20 years, I had 11 different addresses including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Alabama, Utah, and California.” During those early training missions with NASA, Billy said he was dating Marge. “She was aware of what I was doing and she married me anyway, and has been at every one of those eleven addresses with me,” he said.
His last assignment was in Georgia at Robins Air Force Base, from which he retired in 1982. “So a lot of people who work there buy a place on Lake Sinclair to be their get-away place,” he said in explanation of what brought him to Lake Sinclair and Putnam County, where he currently serves as the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners. The Websters purchased their Lake Sinclair home in 1986 as a weekend getaway while Billy continued working in Civil Service at Robins AFB. When he retired from Civil Service in 1999, they moved to their Lake Sinclair home full-time.
And while many people know of his military career, Billy said he hasn’t told too many about his time spent as a NASA test subject. He said a commercial company called “Zero Gravity” now offers anyone the same experience as those early test missions. The only differences appear to be more space for larger groups of people on board at the same time, and the G-force is 1.8-Gs instead of 2.5. “That may help, but I wouldn’t advise it if you’ve got a weak stomach,” he said.
Story by Lynn Hobbs & pictures by Katie Marie O'Neal
Published in the May-June 2021 issue of Lakelife Magazine