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Journeys: Hang Time

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

When the plane, a Boeing 727-?200, reaches an altitude of 22,000 feet above the Nevada desert, the uniformed, perky flight attendants give the all-clear sign. The other 34 passengers and I unbuckle our belts, leave our seats at the back of the plane—the only seats in the cabin—and gather at the designated spots toward the front of the cabin, where the floor and walls are padded.

Until this point, the flight—on a Saturday morning in March—has seemed normal enough. During the preflight ritual, one of the flight attendants showed us how to fasten our seat belts and asked the passengers sitting in the emergency-exit row if they would be willing to assist in an evacuation. However, she also instructed us to remove our shoes, which she stored in canvas bags. And all of the passengers are wearing navy-colored cotton jumpsuits. Before I climbed the stairs to board the plane, a flight attendant made sure that my Velcro-backed name tag was displayed upside down—a NASA tradition, she explained.

I took a motion-sickness pill, as recommended, though I have never suffered from that malady—not even when I endured 36 hours of 10-foot swells on a cruise ship crossing the Drake Passage from South America to Antarctica. But the decision will prove to be a wise one.

About 30 minutes after takeoff, I am lying on the padded floor with my head pointing toward the plane’s nose. The pilot aims the nose upward at a 45-?degree angle, and when he levels out the plane, I lose contact with the floor. For 20 or 30 seconds, I hover as astronauts do aboard the space shuttle. Then the flight attendants, equipped with bullhorns, shout, "Feet down! Coming out!" The plane plunges earthward at a 20-degree angle, completing the arc—known in aviation circles as a parabola—and giving me about a second to maneuver into a landing position before gravity reasserts itself and slams me to the floor. We repeat this exercise 14 more times before returning to our seats, buckling ourselves in, and starting our gradual descent back toward the private-plane terminal at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport.

The Zero Gravity Corp., or Zero-G for short, offers this ride—which it dubs the Weightless Experience—for about $4,100 per ticket. In addition to flying out of Vegas, Zero-G planes depart monthly (sometimes more frequently, sometimes less) from San Jose, Calif., Los Angeles, and the Kennedy Space Center, near Orlando, Fla. The Zero-G planes also are available for charter, for one passenger or as many as 35. Charter flights depart from all of the aforementioned locations and from other sites throughout the continental United States. The price of a charter flight starts at about $135,000, and includes at least 15 parabolas. Each additional parabola costs $5,000; the maximum number is 40.

Before boarding our Zero-G flight, the other passengers and I gathered in a room at the company’s Las Vegas offices to watch a mandatory instructional video, a fair portion of which was devoted to touting the company’s Weightless Experience. The video’s jumpsuited narrator, a pretty, brown-eyed woman named Wendy, explained to us, "This will be a gentle, peaceful, almost Zen-like experience." She also told us that the flight would be "a fun, relaxing adventure that [we would] remember forever."

That description proves not entirely accurate. A Zero-G flight is fun and certainly memorable. But relaxing? Gentle? Peaceful? Zen-like? Only if Wendy’s concept of Zen resembles a Chinese fire drill crossed with a rugby scrum.

Zero-G evolved from observations that former NASA astronaut Byron Lichtenberg made while running Payload Systems, a company he cofounded in 1984, a year after flying the first of his two space-shuttle missions. Payload Systems arranges for scientists, engineers, and other private parties to determine firsthand whether their experiments and products—many of them intended for use on NASA missions—will perform as expected in a weightless environment. Payload Systems creates that environment within a jet by having it fly in arc patterns similar to the ones that a Zero-G plane now flies. The scientists and engineers accompany their experiments on the Payload flights.

Lichtenberg noticed that many Payload Systems clients deliberately booked more time than they needed. "We’d have people take a laptop on to see if it would work in zero-g," he says. "It doesn’t take long to see if it works, but they bought seats for a week. Yes, they’re happy to see that the computer works, but [for much of the time] they’re flipping, spinning, twirling, and not paying attention to the experiment."

Lichtenberg eventually capitalized on this insight, cofounding Zero-G with Peter Diamandis in 1993. Diamandis is also a cofounder of Space Adventures, a Virginia company that has sent five civilians to the International Space Station since 2001. (In March, Space Adventures acquired Zero-G.) In addition, Diamandis is chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which in 2004 awarded the $10 million Ansari X Prize to aeronautics genius Burt Rutan after Rutan’s SpaceShipOne made two suborbital flights within five days of each other. "I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was 9," says Diamandis. "Byron told me that you have a one-in-a-thousand chance of becoming an astronaut, and of those astronauts, half never fly. Your best chance [of experiencing weightlessness] is that plane."

Zero-G’s plane remained grounded for 11 years while Diamandis and Lichtenberg sought certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. "The FAA found it challenging," Diamandis says. "They never anticipated commercial parabolic-flight operations. We had to demonstrate that we could reach the highest level of safety. Commercially, that took some time."

Since its maiden flight in October 2004, Zero-G has flown more than 5,000 passengers, including computer executive Charles Simonyi (who later became the fifth "tourist" to go to the International Space Station) and British physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and has been confined to a wheelchair for the last 40 years. "I got to know [Hawking] as the chairman of the X Prize Foundation, and I heard about his interest in flying in space," Diamandis says. "We did a lot of special planning. He did incredibly well." Diamandis notes that Hawking’s response convinced the team to perform eight parabolas instead of just the one that they had scheduled. A grinning Hawking appears in Zero-G’s promotional materials, along with his endorsement: "It was amazing. The zero-g part was wonderful, and the high-g part was no problem. I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come."

Employees of several companies that are entering the suborbital-spaceflight market (see "The Next Adventure," page 242) have taken Zero-G flights. Most notable among them is Rutan, whose company, Scaled Composites, is building the vessel that is expected to carry Virgin Galactic passengers to the edge of space. "I did recommend that several of my engineers, as well as Virgin folk, take the ride in order to get a sense of the difficulty to get from floating around to a reclined seat or floor for reentry," Rutan says. "My engineers did learn a lot during the flight that helped them design interiors, and they did get a relatively good taste of how fun it is to float about the cabin."

Anyone considering reserving a seat on a suborbital flight (assuming suborbital flights come to be) might consider a Zero-G ride as a practice run; it could prove to be a prudent investment. Tickets for suborbital flights will cost from $100,000 to $250,000, depending on the company, and at most they will provide five uninterrupted minutes of free floating. If you spend just a minute gaining your bearings, you will have wasted from $20,000 to $50,000—an amount that would cover the cost of several Zero-G flights.

Diamandis and Lichtenberg put a great deal of thought into shaping the Zero-G experience. NASA training flights typically involve 40 to 80 parabolas per flight—a number distressing enough for astronauts to have nicknamed the plane that makes such flights the "Vomit Comet." NASA has flown several Vomit Comets over the years. The first was a C-131, which made its initial zero-gravity flight in 1959. The longest-serving one was a military version of a Boeing 707, which flew for 22 years and was employed for filming the weightless scenes in the movie Apollo 13. The space agency donated that jet to the city of Houston in 2000.

Diamandis is quick to dismiss any comparisons between the Zero-G rides and NASA’s hurl fests. "The typical [Zero-G] flight is 15 parabolas. Fifteen is enough for a person to enjoy it, but not so many that you have motion sickness," he says. "From experience, it’s the right number."

Lichtenberg estimates that he flew a combined total of 4,000 or more parabolas on NASA test flights, and he never suffered any discomfort. "For the first 10 parabolas, most people do well. It’s somewhere around 25—that’s where a lot of people seem to have problems. We don’t do 10 in a row like NASA," he says, explaining that the Zero-G aircraft flies three sets of parabolas, each separated by a break that lasts five minutes. "We modified the [NASA] profile to let people stay comfortable. Most people do take the [recommended motion-sickness] medicine, and once every third flight, someone will get sick. We think that’s pretty good."

By his estimation, Diamandis has flown 60 or 70 Zero-G flights. "The most enjoyable thing, bar none, is to just float and do nothing," he says. "To feel what it’s like to be weightless is a magical, beautiful experience."

With the magic and beauty comes lots of noise; the flight attendants need their bullhorns to be heard above the din in the Zero-G cabin. And although 35 people do not form a crowd when they are strapped into airline seats, they do become one when they are trying to spin, twist, soar, bounce, somersault, swallow M&Ms, flip, and act like Superman.

None of these acts is easy to perform while weightless. Under Earth’s gravity, movement is instinctual; you can walk, run, skip, or—in some cases—dance without having to think about it. In the absence of gravity, however, my body struggles to obey my brain’s instructions, even when those directions are as simple as "Go right" or "Get out of that guy’s way" or "Do not hit the ceiling." Moving with grace and purpose is out of the question; I am delighted if I do what I want to do without crashing into anyone or anything.

Nothing, not even swimming, compares to the sensation of weightlessness. In fact, Wendy, the Zero-G video narrator, warned us against swimming: "Do not try to swim. Many people’s first reaction is to kick." Reverting to the doggie paddle, she added, "looks silly" and will not help. Water provides something to push against, but air does not. Try to swim away from the cabin wall that you are approaching, and you will still hit it. "Be aware of your limbs and what they do," Wendy said, warning that flailing about like a hapless fool can injure anyone floating alongside. And usually, other passengers will be floating alongside—and above and below, and in front and behind, and darting past.

When I find myself gliding rapidly upward at the start of a floating session, I resort to swimming in a fruitless attempt to prevent a collision with the ceiling. I also try to swim after an object that escapes from my grasp and drifts toward the rear of the cabin. In the process, I kick a fellow passenger in the head—not hard, just a brush across his crown with the ball of my foot. And when gravity abruptly returns, just after the "Feet down! Coming out!" warning has been issued, another passenger falls on me.

The 15 half-minute bursts of weightlessness do not provide nearly enough time to master or even acclimate to this environment. But unlike a Vomit Comet flight, a Zero-G adventure ends long before you become sick of it. The experience may not be gentle, relaxing, peaceful, or Zen-like, but it does leave you wanting more.

Zero Gravity Corp., 702.247.4085, 800.937.6480, www.gozerog.com

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