Men's Journal | February 2005
Ready to play astronaut for a day? All you'll need is a flight suit and plenty of Dramamine. Welcome to the best new roller coaster in the solar system.
The flight commander, his uniform covered with mission patches, stands at a lectern in the darkened room, clicking through PowerPoint images of the operation. There are facts and figures, medical warnings, diagrams of ascents and G-forces. Trainees in blue flight suits scribble notes in nervous anticipation of their first step into the final frontier.
"We're gonna talk about bathrooms," the commander says. "There are no bathrooms up there. Things tend to slosh around."
The question did actually occur to me, but I didn't have the nerve to ask. I am not, after all, a real NASA trainee in a briefing room at Cape Canaveral, but an average thrill-seeker sitting in a meeting room at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, outside Fort Lauderdale. The electronic pings and whistles in the background are not the whirring computers of mission control but the insatiable hum of hundreds of slot machines. This is the future of tourism in the 21st century: the Zero-G experience.
For $3,750 a head, Zero-G gives civilians a taste of astronaut-style weightlessness aboard G-Force One, a Boeing 727 the company has retrofitted with a padded cargo bay and modified hydraulics. Zero-G was founded by former astronaut Byron Lichtenberg and Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation. After five years awaiting FAA approval, the first commercial flights launched last September.
The flight principle is pure Newtonian physics: Climbing upward at 45 degrees, the plane traces a huge parabolic arc, with a controlled acceleration earthward (read: freefall) from 34,000 feet. At the top of the arc the plane's occupants are suspended in midair for about 30 seconds. It's the same floating sensation as cresting a rise in a car -- at about 200 mph.
Shuttled to the Fort Lauderdale airport, our group walks across the tarmac, where G-Force One is being prepped by technicians. We are a decidedly less buff replay of the iconic scene in The Right Stuff: a lawyer, an anesthesiologist, a washing machine repairman, all drawn by the desire to feel, however briefly, like real astronauts. This is the most extreme thing most of us have done, except for 76-year-old Bill House from Baton Rouge, who is ticking the adventure off his life list, right after high-altitude skydiving, hang gliding, and driving a Formula One car.
There are 30 seats in the back of the fuselage; the front is a large open space with a padded floor. I've heard real astronauts who train on a similar plane refer to it as the Vomit Comet, so I've already decided to self-medicate, taking a double dose of Dramamine. We taxi and take off, heading for our reserved airspace over the Gulf of Mexico. After about 30 minutes the captain turns off the seatbelt sign. You may now get up and float around the cabin.
As a warmup, the pilots will conduct parabolas at Martian gravity (about one third that of earth's), lunar (one sixth earth's), and finally zero gravity. If they do too mild a parabola, we won't become weightless; too aggressive and we'll all be pinned to the ceiling. As the plane climbs there is a feeling of intense pressure, as if my internal organs are made of lead. We are pulling 1.8 Gs, almost double earth's gravity. When the plane reaches about 34,000 feet, there's a sudden release. Instantly everybody is standing, bounding up and down as light as feathers and laughing hysterically. I jump up and bounce right off the eight-foot ceiling. I weigh 60 pounds, give or take. Then, boom, gravity is restored and we are all pinned to the floor.
We pull up again, this time at lunar gravity, and passengers are doing one-handed push-ups with other people lying on their backs. A woman executes a full Matrix move, running up the wall and across the ceiling before we are all squished to the mat again. It's total regression: A group of well-heeled, mature professionals -- people with Ph.D.'s, with 401(k)s -- is morphed into a bunch of seven-year-olds having a rec-room pillow fight.
Then things get really strange. The plane climbs steeply, and suddenly I am floating four feet above the floor. The flight director opens a water bottle and amoebic globules wobble through the air. Weightlessness is like swimming in breathable water; I try to dog-paddle but there's nothing to push against. My fellow astronerds are shrieking in delight, drifting, pirouetting, cannonballing off the walls. Bill House does a backflip. A balding participant has a comb-over blowout, his shock of hair drifting up like kelp. One of the Zero-G instructors opens a bag of toys, and a Slinky expands and contracts in midair. A Nerf football travels end over end, a slow-motion replay of a field goal. Thirty seconds later the flight director shouts, "Feet down!" and we are flattened again.
This happens 10 times in a row. I try one-fingered handstands, elaborate dance moves, clinging to the ceiling like a human fly. Twenty-seven people who spend their lives succumbing to gravity are suddenly granted a pardon. Of course, none of us is really weightless. We are in fact plunging toward the Gulf of Mexico at the same speed as our airplane. We are viscerally experiencing Einstein's great revelation, which led to his General Theory of Relativity: A falling body is at times indistinguishable from a floating body.
And then it's over. The plane levels out and we return to our bodies, sit down, buckle up. Everyone wants to go back to floating. Weightlessness is addictive, like some sort of space crack, and they give you just enough to get you hooked. Of course, for a total of five minutes of weightlessness at $12.50 per second, regular crack would have been considerably cheaper.
There will soon be many more (and more expensive) ways to get that weightless fix, if it's up to Lichtenberg, Diamandis, and other entrepreneurs who believe the future of space travel belongs to the private sphere. Aviation billionaire Richard Branson plans to start selling $220,000 suborbital flights on Virgin Galactic by 2007. Zero-G wants to help train the first civilian astronauts. [...]
I, for one, am completely sold on the idea of space tourism. It's not until the postflight reception back at the casino, where I almost drop a beer that's handed to me, that I realize I've stopped believing in gravity. I drift around the pinging rows of slot machines in my flight suit, dreaming of the wild blue yonder, not caring what any of the earthlings think. Make me a reservation at the Mars Hotel, Mr. Diamandis.
Photograph by: Joe Marino