A commercial deep sea to space research, training and test centre, called Blue Abyss, is in the middle of a multi-million pound regeneration vision to develop a science, innovation and technology park on part of a soon-to-close RAF base site in Bedfordshire.
The Blue Abyss team is working with Central Bedfordshire Council to create the £120m facility, designed by London’s Gherkin architect Robin Partington, on part of the RAF Henlow site, which is due to close by 2020. Blue Abyss will house what the company claims to be the world’s biggest 50m deep pool, a hotel, an astronaut training centre including parabolic flight capability, hypobaric and hyperbaric chambers and a human performance centre to enable divers, astronauts and top athletes to perform at the peak of their potential.
Plans include a conference theatre and training rooms, and a 120 bed hotel. Blue Abyss will fulfill a crucial role in the growth of the UK’s space industry, highlighted by the government in the Queen’s Speech last week. It hopes to start building at the end of the year to start operating in 2019, bringing about 160 new jobs.
The Blue Abyss team plans to reuse some facilities at RAF Henlow, including a centrifuge base already installed at the site for its long-arm human centrifuge for high-G astronaut training.
A launch event, sponsored by Northumbria University, was held at Cranfield University on 27th June 2017, attended by representatives of the European Space Agency (ESA), Romanian cosmonaut Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu, Blue Abyss Non-executive Director, and representatives from central and local government.
Blue Abyss will provide an arena for pioneering research and development into extreme environments, which in turn will enable better human performance in deep sea and space environments by encouraging innovation. The research and development will help to reduce risk, test operational procedures, improve performance and aid exploration in these environments. The centre will also offer a wide range of experiential ‘space preparation’ packages for groups and individuals.
These packages will run alongside a commercial astronaut training programme to allow ordinary people to undergo a full astronaut training programme ready for the wave of commercial spaceflight opportunities coming to market.
Blue Abyss Chief Executive John Vickers said: "Its aim is to transform human life science research and performance training in extreme environments, focusing on advanced commercial diving skills, underwater and space robotics, human spaceflight preparation, professional athlete fitness and healthcare from a better understanding of human physiology under extreme conditions."
Blue Abyss’ education outreach programme and collaboration with universities will help shape a new generation of scientists and engineers, working with primary schools through to post-graduate and post-doctorate researchers.
Vickers continued: “Having a centrifuge base already there is an important feature because it’s the most expensive and difficult element of the equipment to install.
“Being part of something bigger, working closely with a proactive council in its enabling and planning capacity and bringing jobs to the area, means we can make the incredibly exciting facilities for the industries we will serve a reality, for UK plc and increase the profile of space travel, space adventure and tourism, deep-sea and offshore energy innovation.
“The government highlighted in the Queen’s Speech how important the space industry is for UK plc. It wants to make the UK the most attractive place in Europe for commercial spaceflight to help increase the UK share of the global space economy to ten percent by 2030.”
Professor Simon Evetts, Blue Abyss Space Operations Director, said: “By being progressive and investing in a sector that has grown throughout the recent economic downturn, we not only ensure our space sector remains vibrant when the UK leaves the EU, but we also provide the UK itself with a high-growth, innovative field of endeavour to help underpin our future.”
Offshore technology for the oil and gas and renewables industries will be tested in the pool, and hyperbaric chambers, providing a vital role in bringing new robotic and human aid technologies to market.
Blue Abyss will be working with companies and academic institutions to develop the UK’s reputation and status as an industrial nation. The centre’s Kuehnegger Human Performance Centre will house specialist diver, astronaut and athlete research and development facilities. The centre will include a microgravity simulation suite with a traversable, full-body suspension system plus additional hypobaric chambers to facilitate hypoxia and altitude training, rehabilitation and physiological studies.
Vickers said: “Our education provision will be vital to give students from across the UK and the world the opportunity to work on real-world projects with internationally renowned academics that they would not have had access to otherwise.
“Blue Abyss will provide a crucial offering to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) agenda in the UK by providing a truly exciting arena for science to be taught and experienced.”
Cllr James Jamieson, Leader of Central Bedfordshire Council, said: “The council welcomes the proposals to bring Blue Abyss to the Henlow site as a central part of a comprehensive mixed use regeneration vision.
“The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) representing the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and central government, are exploring opportunities to work in partnership with Central Bedfordshire to secure the sustainable redevelopment of the Henlow RAF site.
"Central Bedfordshire is pleased to be working in partnership with Blue Abyss to bring these exciting, innovative proposals to fruition within central Bedfordshire.”
The event at Cranfield, sponsored by Northumbria University, had a burgeoning aerospace medicine and rehabilitation laboratory, and aimed to conduct research in the fields of aviation medicine, space medicine, and terrestrial healthcare/rehabilitation.
Scientists at the university are also working with the University of Edinburgh to develop a prototype engine based on solid-to-vapour transformation, which could be used for harvesting energy on the surface of Mars and other extreme environments.
Professor Greta Defeyter, Associate Pro Vice Chancellor for Strategic Planning and Engagement, said: “Northumbria University, Newcastle, is committed to working in partnership and sees this as essential to support its ambition as a research-rich, business-focused, professional university with a global reputation for academic excellence. As such, the University is delighted to be supporting Blue Abyss through their official launch.”
Dr Nick Caplan, Associate Professor of Musculoskeletal Health, added: “At Northumbria, we have been developing human spaceflight related activities for nearly ten years within the Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation Laboratory."