Farewell To Gravity

By Xeni Jardin
Wired Magazine
This must be what it feels like when your soul leaves your body. That's all I could think when the first parabola hit, and I floated in zero gravity for the first time.
If you've ever dreamed you could fly, you already know exactly how it feels. That's the most amazing thing about weightlessness -- the fact that something so unnatural and unfamiliar feels so natural, so familiar.
On Wednesday, I flew on a parabolic flight offered by Zero Gravity -- the first Federal Aviation Administration-approved weightless flight service to be offered to U.S. consumers.
While zero-gravity trips have been offered previously to researchers and astronauts-in-training on NASA's KC-135 "vomit comet," they weren't offered to the public.
Commercial versions have been available through the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency, but ticket prices and travel costs for would-be American fliers were considerably higher than the $2,950 per ticket cost of the U.S.-based flights.
The flights create microgravity environments by swooping along a trajectory that looks like the biggest roller coaster in the galaxy. Each modified Boeing 727-200 cargo jet climbs from around 25,000 to 39,000 feet, and each time it reaches the peak of that invisible arc, varying levels of weightlessness occur inside the craft, from "Martian" levels at a third of Earth gravity, to "moon" levels at one-sixth of Earth gravity, to absolute zero gravity.
On the ground before liftoff, all 27 passengers on my flight were split into groups of three. My team's coach warned each of us to sit as still as possible during the heavy-gravity "valleys" along that roller-coaster trajectory -- keep your head aligned with your spine we were told, don't move your head, choose a single point in front of you and stay focused on it. Rapid eye movements create vertigo, and vertigo generally leads to vomit.
Some of my flight-mates took anti-nausea meds like the scopolamine-Dexedrine cocktail popular with NASA flyers. Those taking "scopedex" time their hits like deadheads dropping acid before a show -- "Should I take it now? I want it to kick in before takeoff time so I'm good to go when the parabolas start."
Others like me just crossed fingers and crammed chewing gum, ginger candy, crackers or Altoids into flight-suit pockets.
Inside, the plane is an empty hull, apart from 30 seats in the rear. Along the length of the craft, nearly all windows are welded shut. A good thing for nervous first-timers like me, perhaps, because looking outside can induce motion sickness. But the real reason they're blocked is that when this plane isn't a weightless pleasure craft, it's a cargo vehicle for hauling goods -- part of Zero Gravity's patented business plan.
Inside, we begin the first climb into a weightless parabola. Before we float, we feel the opposite of floating -- the 1.8-G pull-up feels like invisible hands pressing down on my skull, shoulders, face, spine. The heaviness is so vivid, so dense, it's almost painful. Looking around the plane, all of my flight-mates -- journalists, astronauts, Zero-G employees and a few radio contest winners -- look like they're in yoga class. Rows of people seated with crossed legs, spines erect, heads motionless. We gaze forward at the Diet Rite sponsor sticker slapped on the forward cabin wall, as if it were a mandala.
The weight feels unbearable, as if the hair, skin and muscle hanging on our bones were suddenly replaced with lead replicas. Then, just when the weight can't get any heavier, it vanishes. And all of the passengers, seated seconds ago like brass Buddhas, release folded legs and float into the air like translucent silk scarves.
The sound of floating is squealing. Our blood has been replaced with laughing gas. Everyone's giggling uncontrollably -- all there is to do when you float for the very first time is laugh.
Because it's impossible. Because it's unnatural. Because it feels like that dream of flying over rooftops in moonlight. And the joke in your bones is that all of this feels perfectly natural, as if all your life you were meant to float.
The cable news correspondent does a back flip. The guy whose best friend won a ticket on the radio leaps into the air, spins laterally in vapor. Two passengers do push-ups off each others' backs, hovering like fleshy UFOs.
My flight coach grabs my hand and we propel off the padded floor, a Superman leap into air along the craft length. Each parabola lasts less than a minute, but feels like five, 10, 20, maybe an hour. Time evaporates along with gravity.
My coach and I land on the other end of the craft, and the flight manager shouts a command for all to be seated and in pull-up position -- back to yoga pose. The heaviness that follows as the plane descends into the next roller-coaster "trough" is just as intense as the floating euphoria.
We've landed next to Buzz Aldrin -- the second human to ever touch the moon -- and I ask him how this compares to the first time he felt weightlessness. Aldrin is kneeling, with head and shoulders erect, palms flat on knees, motionless like a monk among rows of serene, seated monks.
"The last time I've had zero gravity was for real in a spacecraft," he says, smiling. "Zero gravity in airplane is the same, in terms of physics -- it's just doled out in shorter doses."
The astronaut tells me he scuba dives often, because he grows homesick for floating. "These flights are a good eye-opener for the public, and they help open up the feel of space to more than just government-sponsored people or the very wealthy," Aldrin says. "There could be lotteries to open this up to those who can't afford the $2,950, and the commercial sponsorships help."
As he finishes speaking, he grips his knees and falls silent, leaning forward into the pull-up. The weight mounts again, and this time the pressure seems endless.
Then, all of a sudden, the floor disappears. We become small clouds. We are lifted. A day later -- seated not on a plane floor but behind a laptop -- I understand what Aldrin meant. I, too, feel homesick for floating.
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