- 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,
- 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
- 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,
- "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
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