I did the flips, flew arms wide like Superman, did the Spider-Man crawl along the ceiling, all in an airplane with a couple dozen others as part of a flight organized by Zero Gravity Corp. (Zero-G) that flew out of Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia earlier this month.
For years, the company has been able to create an experience for customers that mimics the weightless experience of going to space by flying in parabolic arcs. The plane flies up on a pitched ascent, and then crests over like a roller coaster into a steep dive that allows passengers to float for about 30 seconds at a time.
In a hollowed-out cabin of a 727 jet, with padding all around, your body rises involuntarily, and you float, effortlessly, as if you were a molecule in a state of matter that suddenly went from a solid to freewheeling gas, pinging around with abandon.
Like the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, my fellow passengers and I did flips, caught floating candy in our mouths and chased droplets of water. Again and again, the world went topsy-turvy, the ceiling where the floor used to be and vice versa. Long hair unleashed wildly, as if electrocuted.
It was as close an approximation of going to space as most of us will ever get — and for a fraction of the cost, though it’s still an expensive joyride. The price of the Zero-G flights is $7,500, compared with the $450,000 that Virgin Galactic charges for its flights. And while Blue Origin hasn’t named a ticket price yet, it auctioned off one seat for $28 million.
As with flying with Bezos’s Blue Origin space company or Branson’s Virgin Galactic, the preparation is minimal, and virtually anyone can go. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Stephen Hawking, the late famed physicist who had Lou Gehrig’s disease, flew on a Zero-G flight in 2007. And earlier this month, a nonprofit called AstroAccess chartered a Zero-G flight for an array of people with disabilities.
The first rule, at least the one I paid the most attention to, was how not to get sick. Throwing up is bad enough, but doing it when it might float around an airplane was unthinkable.
On the ascent, we lay on our backs, allowing the pressure to build, as the pilots pitched the plane up and we felt almost two Gs, or two times the force of gravity on our bodies. At that moment, our instructors warned, it’s best to pick out a spot on the ceiling and focus on it and remain still. If you do feel sick, “it’s better to let somebody know early,” said Andrew Humphreys, Zero-G’s director of program operations. The instructors on board have ginger gum, mints, “a whole bunch of things to make you feel a little bit better.”
And “get some food in you,” which will help settle the stomach. For good measure, they hand out Dramamine (which I took) and barf bags, which we dutifully stashed into an easily accessible pocket of our one-piece flight suits, just in case.
Another bit of advice about how to behave without gravity: “Don’t jump.” On Earth, most of us can only jump a couple of feet. Up there, you jump and you hit the ceiling — hard. “So take it easy,” Humphreys said. And especially take it easy at first. “You’re not suddenly a gymnast,” he said. “If you haven’t done a flip in I don’t know how long, don’t do it right away. Save that for the end.”
Finally, they said, don’t swim. The closest experience to being in zero-G is being in the water, and so people tend to try to swim. “But that’s not going to help you because there’s nothing that you have any resistance against,” Humphreys said. Without gravity, swimming is flailing, and flailing while floating is dangerous. “You are now just a kicking, swinging object, and you don’t want to run into anyone,” Humphreys said.
I was nervous as we boarded the plane — about throwing up, mostly, but maybe also taking a Karate Kid chop to the face. But I was also excited. As a reporter for The Post, I cover space and have spoken with lots of astronauts, all of whom rhapsodized about space and flying in weightlessness.
“Gravity sucks. It’s horrible,” former NASA astronaut Sandy Magnus once told me. Going to space, she said, changed her perception of gravity. Without it, she felt free. But then she came home from space and was aware of gravity in a way she had never been before. It was like, “What the heck is this?” she said. “I can’t believe we live in this all the time. I mean, it’s just horrid.”
So what would that be like to not have that force pressing down, I wondered. What would it be like to be free?
At first, not that much different — but that’s because the pilots made a gentle arc, one that mimics Mars’s gravity, or about one-third of Earth’s. On the next parabola, the pilots went slightly steeper, this time to replicate gravity on the moon, or about one-sixth of what we experience on Earth. As the plane crested downward, we hopped like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and did one-handed push-ups, another baby step toward true weightlessness.
And then it came. I was lying on my back, religious about remaining fixated on a spot on the ceiling, hoping that I wouldn’t get sick. I could feel the Gs building in my chest, and then we crested the wave and suddenly my body lifted from the ground. It’s unclear whether I pushed off or just somehow levitated, but I was floating.
At first the feeling was disorienting, even a bit frightening. Suspended in midair, I did exactly what the instructors told me not to: I swam. My arms went into doggy-paddle overdrive. My legs fluttered wildly. But this did nothing, and although I was aware it was ridiculous, it took me a few seconds to get control of myself and stop. Finally, I was still and without anything to hold on to or push off of, so I gently meandered, like a feather or a particle of dust, until the plane pulled out of its descent, leveled off and I was back on the floor, staring at a spot on the ceiling.
Each time we did a parabola, I got a little bit better, more adventurous, my endeavors only sometimes thwarted by running into others. We were like free-floating molecules, bouncing not just off the walls and ceiling but also each other. Yes, I did take a foot to the head. (Or maybe it was an elbow?) I also once got a blinding face full of blond, curly hair. And a couple of times, I had to scramble at the last second as gravity reasserted itself to avoid coming down squarely on someone else.
For me, the flight was fun and liberating. For Sawyer Rosenstein, it was, as he told me, “surreal.” The 27-year-old news producer flew on the flight chartered by AstroAccess, which included a dozen people, some of whom, like him, use a wheelchair and others with vision or hearing impairments. Leading up to the flight, a couple of weeks after mine, he was thinking about the wonders of floating and flying, the freeing effects of weightlessness.
But what happened on his first parabola was unexpected. His head and torso floated up, and his legs acted like a pendulum and stayed down, meaning he was upright.
“I realized for the first time in 15 years I was standing,” he said. “That was surreal to say the least. … When it happened it took me by surprise, and I just shouted, ‘Oh my God, I’m standing.’”
Like me, he became more adventurous with each parabola. “The ceiling and I became very friendly with each other,” he told me. “I found myself up there a lot.”
Neither of us, it turned out, got sick. I was queasy a few times, breaking into a mild sweat that fogged my glasses. Rosenstein was a bit, too, as he reoriented to gravity: “My body went, ‘Whoa, you sat up way too fast.’”
Still, for both of us the trip was well worth it. But it left us wondering what must it be like to actually go to space, and if we would ever get the chance. Astronauts say weightlessness is a delight, but the real value of space exploration is in the view from above.
We may have had more time floating weightlessly, but Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on Star Trek, had the view and was absolutely awed by it. “What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” he told Bezos after the trip to the edge of space. “I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this. I hope I maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it.”
Here’s to hoping, then, that our flight on the Zero-G airplane is just one small step in a much longer journey.